Tuesday 28 September 2010

'a cloud of memories'

Stone In A Landslide
by Maria Barbal

The second of three launch titles for Peirene Press, whose Beside The Sea I loved, is described as a Catalan modern classic. Published originally in 1985 it is now in its 50th edition but this translation by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell is the first into English. In a little over a hundred pages Barbal presents us with an entire life, that of Concepció - known as Conxa - and also describes a way of life that will be unfamiliar unless you happened to be a peasant farmer in the Pyrenees during the beginning of the last century (you didn't, did you?). Conxa narrates the book and tells us the story of her life from one upheaval to another. The fifth of six children she is sent to live and work with her childless aunt Tia in Pallarès as 'Someone had to go.' There she will live as their daughter and become their heir (the novel makes very clear the importance of legacy, as land passes through families and becomes important during the arrangement of marriage).

Initially she finds it hard to fit in and be accepted, her shyness a result of her predicament a well as the thing that helps maintain it but slowly things begin to change for her and in her first winter she meets Jaume.

I was convinced that Conxa would be fat and beefy and, since I was so thin, when people asked my name I always thought they would burst out laughing and I'd feel bad. But Jaume told me that saying my name was like eating a sweet, that it was the name of something small and delicious that he liked very much. It was as if he'd been born to take away my fears, to bring light where I saw darkness and to flatten what felt like a mountain to me.

Tia and Oncle are unhappy at first about a match, seeing Jaume as a bit of a drifter, not only a second son (and therefore not the heir) but for having not followed the family trade. Having mentioned that legacy is important, marriage is even more like a contract negotiation with families looking for advantage when proposing a match. At first it seems as if there is little to recommend Conxa and Jaume's union but slowly tempers cool, they come around to the idea after seeing potential benefits and it isn't long before they're not only married but celebrating the birth of their first child, a daughter, Elvira. The simple prose of the book tells of the preoccupations of village and peasant life: hard work, festivals, births, marriages and deaths. I was impressed by the way Barbal was able to alter her writing slightly so that the voice of Conxa, despite narrating from her old age, fitted perfectly with the immaturity of her youth, hope of her young adulthood and then on to the anguish of the period that we know is approaching. It comes disguised at first in the 'strange happiness' announced by left-wing firebrand Jaume.

I didn't see this as any great happiness to speak of, but Jaume's joy flowed from his lips and hands and it was contagious. He grabbed me and took me out onto the street where people had gathered to talk...I was blinded by so much light and overwhelmed by the sound on everyone's lips - Republic.

The departure of King Alfonso XIII and the arrival of the Republic is accompanied by a recurring dream for Conxa, of dancing with a partner whom she is sure is Jaume but whose 'features were erased'. She struggles with the meaning of this dream until one day a lorry pulls up and carts both her and her (now two) daughters away. In Monsent prison, scared and ignorant, incapable of talking to her captors Conxa's fragile stoicism provides the novella with its title.

I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here, still, for days and days.

She and her girls do stay there for days and days, finally released after five and half weeks into a world forever altered by civil war. Again there is a subtle shift in narrative voice as Conxa moves into middle and old age and we realise that we are witnessing the passing of a way of life, the younger generation unwilling to put up with the hard work that has characterised Conxa's own life. This book may not have had the same impact on me as Beside The Sea; the passivity of its narrator, as suggested by that image of the titular stone, means that for all our engagement with her Conxa remains a quiet and stoic presence. Also, as Kimbofo pointed out in her own review, it is hard to get beyond the feeling that we are observing rather than participating in her story; the complicity of Beside The Sea is absent and that makes a big difference to the reading experience. That said, this is a novella that allows the reader to accompany an unobtrusive narrator through a lifetime punctuated by a well known historical event but never dominated by it, never to my mind has such a tumultuous period been portrayed by such a gentle presence. What actually remains is the touching portrait of a woman shaped by the world she lived in, the book defined by the fact that she is the one in a position to paint it.


Max Cairnduff 28 September 2010 at 17:05  

It's a very interesting read isn't it? I wasn't wholly blown away, but I did like it and was glad I'd read it. You sound like you're in a similar place.

The observing rather than participating didn't bother me, in some ways the same could be said for Conxa herself. She's more acted upon than acting.

It's nice Peirene are bringing out these translations isn't it? Fascinating choice of material.

My take is here in case you didn't see it before:


William Rycroft 29 September 2010 at 00:33  

'More acted upon than acting' - that's it exactly Max, thank you. I've really enjoyed the three Peirene titles I've read so far (my review of Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman will be up next month) and all in different ways too. I'm off to read your own review now...

Max Cairnduff 29 September 2010 at 10:36  

They're definitely a publisher to watch. I have Beside the Sea at home and will read that soonish.

And like you I'm definitely looking forward to the Anthea Bell translation.

William Rycroft 29 September 2010 at 11:08  

I think Beside The Sea is truly excellent so I hope you enjoy that one. All the Peirene titles are now in their 2nd print run, which must be good news.

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