This week I am going to look at three books published by Peirene Press, of course all by female authors, given we are still participating in Women In Translation Month. Peirene Press specializes in contemporary European novellas in English translation. Part of their “charter” is to only publish books of less than 200 pages, which are best-sellers and/or award winners in their own countries. They publish three titles per annum in a “theme” and today I’m going to look at a novella from their first series “Female Voice: Inner Realities”, their second book actually published, “Stone in a Landslide”, by Maria Barbal, translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell.
Maria Barbal was born in 1949 in the region of Pallars Jussà, and moved to Barcelona in the 1960’s graduating with an Arts degree from the University of Barcelona. In 1984 this work, (“Pedra de tartera”), won the Joaquim Ruyra prize and this was simply the start of a string of literary awards including the National Catalan Literature Prize in 1993 for “Càmfora”. For an article by Maria Barbal, “Who I am and why I write?” go to Catalan Literature Online here. http://www.lletra.net/en/author/maria-barbal
“Stone in a Landslide” covers a lifetime in only 126 pages. Our story opens with our first person narrator, Conxa, explaining the realities of being female and the fifth of six children in a small village. At age thirteen this unsure young girl takes her first ever trip away from her village to a neighbouring village to go and live with her mother’s sister, Aunt Tia, who is childless. Conxa is an extra pair of hands to help on the land.
I closed my eyes and those first days of my new life seemed very far away: the nights I cried myself to sleep remembering each and every person from home, the times I would wake with a start, and the anxiety that didn’t leave me all day. How quickly I got used to such a great change! But if I counted it up, I’d already been away for half a year. And now I felt, not fully, but almost as if I’d been born in Tia’s house.
When you knew Tia well, you came to love her, because she didn’t begrudge what she gave you as long as you followed her orders to the letter. Decide, then act, that was her, and she didn’t likfe to be contradicted. Like my mother, she was not demonstrative, but in her own way she showed affection. A glass of fresh milk, still warm from the cow, beside my plate, without a word. I knew they saved it for the calves, or if there was more than enough, they took a few litres to the Augusts’ to earn a peseta or two.
Oncle kept quiet, like that first day on top of the mule, but he wasn’t bad-tempered. I wore myself out helping him. He worked and worked. I learnt to do everything, outside the house as well as in. Exactly as they had shown me, without any touches of my own which they might think showed a lack of respect.
The passage of time is handled in an interesting way with this work, what may seem like minor events (having a glass of milk six months after arriving) show the development of the character over great stretches of time. Conxa marries, and has a child, a girl, both events themselves not appearing in the story itself but happening in between the chapters. We learn of Conxa expecting a second child
A boy will be a man. And a man has the strength to deal with the land, the animals, to build. But I didn’t see it so clearly. When I thought about the families I knew well, I saw the woman as the foundation stone. If I thought about my home, it was my mother who did all the work or organized others to do it. Not to mention Tia. The woman has the children, raised them, harvested, took care of the pigsty, the chicken coop, the rabbits. She did the housework and so many other things: the vegetable garden, the jams, the sausages...What did the man do? Spent the day doing things outside. When a cow had to be sold. When someone had to be hired for the harvest. It wasn’t obvious that the man did more or was more, but everyone said, What is a farm without a man? And I thought, What is a house without a woman? But what everyone had always said weighed on me. I only knew that I wanted a boy.
The development of our narrator is smooth however the innocence of only living in two small villages is retained throughout. This is a personal tale, of one woman living in a small secluded region, and that naivety shines through as the Spanish Civil War breaks out, events happen to Conxa without her having an iota of understanding why. As a beautiful counterpoint to numerous Spanish and Catalan works highlighting the Civil War where the politics are played out throughout, this is a fresh voice of the personal impact of those events. Quite simply a story of a woman with three young children who had never moved beyond two villages being impacted by the War.
As mentioned earlier, the passage of time here is very smooth and years disappear with the turning of a page, however this doesn’t leave you at all confused or grasping for an event that may have been significant. Our narrator Conxa has a simple life and therefore the simplicity is repeated whilst we turn the page.
Not a complex tale, nor a political tale, this is a personal rural tale, one which captures the lives of so many people who would have been in similar situations in Spain in the 1930’s.