5 out of 5: Mercè Rodoreda (1908–1983) is widely regarded as the most important Catalan writer of the twentieth century. Death in Spring, her final novel and perhaps her masterpiece, is now available for the first time in English. This strange and beautiful coming-of-age story unfolds in and around a small, isolated village with no apparent connections to the outside world. Because of this abstraction of location, combined with the frequent appearance of symbolic objects, images, and characters, Death in Spring reads more like an allegory than a novel.
In the oppressive world of the village, the dead are stuffed with pink cement and then entombed in trees. Children are locked in cupboards, and young men are sacrificed to the all-powerful river, which inexplicably runs beneath the village. Despite this strangeness, Death in Spring is not an experiment in fantasy or surrealism but, rather, an exploration of a meticulously-rendered alternate reality. The village’s bridges are specifically named, landmarks are pinpointed, and paths are described in detail, as are directions for getting from one place to another. Ultimately, however, this order is illusory. The village is precariously balanced on top of a swiftly moving river, and no amount of topographical precision will protect this troubled society from self-destruction.
Rodoreda’s prose is poetic without sacrificing any of its ferocity. Her powerful imagery often subverts expectations. In the world of this novel, “Spring is sad” and “plants and flowers are earth’s plague, rotten.” The greenness of Spring is “poisonous color." Life is irrelevant and destruction is happiness:
[Y]ou have to believe that it's all the same to have a face or have your forehead ripped away. It's all the same to live or die .... Learn to make fire by rubbing sticks together; learn to start a fire and you'll be happy. A fire that causes damage.
Death in Spring is an unforgettable book. It's purposefully strange in a way that’s not easily worked out. Because the book’s possible meanings are multiple and ever shifting, they will always be relevant. I expect I’ll be thinking about, and perhaps frustrated by, this book for a long time, and this haunting quality is the reason I’ve given this novel my highest rating. This challenging and bizarre novel will not appeal to everyone, but those up to the challenge, will be richly rewarded.