Paul Doyle on The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda

The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda are a fascinating mix of personal disappointment and the darkly allegorical, stories that capture the precise moment when longing becomes futile and self-destructive. Living through a troubled romance in her early years then later fleeing into exile and poverty at the end of the Spanish Civil War, Rodereda's work reflects those turbulent moments and the disillusion that stems from them. Her stories
look inward, whether in disappointment with a cheating husband, or through grief, both expressed in rich allegorical language. It is the power to catch these moments, the spark of failure or the last legacy of something good, that makes her a rich story teller.

The stories from her first collection, Twenty Two Stories, focus more precisely on the relationships between men and women than those from the other collections. Her gaze is subtle and what she is looking for is that little moment when the relationship changes. Often it is as simple as realizing that a husband's morning kiss is missing. In "Happiness," she shows the transition from happiness to desperation with images of marital bliss, a night in Paris, a new bracelet, "If he could only know how much she loved him." She juxtaposes it with the wife's realization the next morning that her husband has not kissed her before going to the shower. As she sits in bed, that simple act of forgetfulness leads her to the conclusion: "It's over, she thought. Love is ending. And this is how it ends, quietly." It suggests an end, but for Rodoreda noting how things end, as subtle as it is, is not enough. She finds something darker as the wife retreats from her realization when her husband hugs her: "...she was tyrannically imprisoned within four walls and a ceiling of tenderness." The act of realization and freedom that the woman had are illusory, and she retreats to a position of self-delusion, where the easy thing is to accept the embrace even if it offers little.

The self-delusion that surrenders a woman's freedom is a constant in Rodoreda's stories. Her characters are often on the cusp of realizing their power, but they retreat, holding an image drawn from society of what they should be. In "Afternoon in the Cinema," a young woman narrates the last date she had with her boyfriend. It wasn't a good one; he was too busy working his black-market business. But she wants to marry him anyway. She's a simple woman who says things like, "The couple in the movie was really in love. I can see we're not in love like that." But like so many of Rodoreda's characters, there is a self-awareness that she refuses to acknowledge. "What I'd like to be able to explain is, even though I'm almost always dead, down deep I'm happy."  It is a desperate statement by someone grasping for something that doesn't exist, and Rodoreda leaves you to imagine the coming disaster.

In "Engaged" she is at her most elusive, and yet manages to show a whole relationship. The story starts simply enough, with a couple pausing in front of a flower store so the fiancé can look at the flowers. But the questions come quickly: "Why don't you give me flowers?" He replies, "Don't you know that giving flowers is passé?" The dynamic between the couple is quickly established. It could be a small thing, but as the story develops the man emerges as a cold fellow and the woman as one who wants love. He insists on studying alone for two months, which either suggests something is going on or he just has different priorities. He then initiates a test of trust and goes through her purse and then offers her his wallet, where she is surprised to find a tiny slip of paper: "She unfolded the paper. 'Yes, I'll marry you.' She had written it because she was speechless when he asked her if she wanted to be his wife." Again it seems if he is honest, in love, but the act of honesty, looking through each other's wallets, is not trust, but suspicion. He continues, logically, "'This is what we have to do, always.' he said, slipping the wallet into his pocket. 'There can't be any secrets between you and me. Ever. We'll be like brother and sister.'" It is the end of the dream, and for the fiancée this marks the transition away from love, away from the ideal marriage that is always in the distance, unobtainable.

"Before I Die" is the best of the early stories and shows Rodoreda's impressive ability to inject mystery into a story.  The narrator is an 18 or 19 year-old art student, and a free spirit with fairly straightforward, almost brusque manners. She meets a stranger in a café and they quickly marry in a quiet service that no one attends and they eat dinner afterwards alone. The narrator appears to be self-possessed, the opposite of Rodoreda's self-deluded narrators who dream about the ideal love. Then the narrator finds some letters that her husband tells her she is not allowed to read.  When she manages to steal them from the briefcase he keeps with him at all times, she discovers there was another woman, and that their relationship, including the honeymoon in Venice, has all been an act of reliving the previous relationship.  She doesn't try to fool herself into continuing the relationship, instead tries to get revenge. It is a self-destructive act that will not hurt the man. He doesn't care; he is just looking for a replacement lover and is not going to be devastated by a girl who has deluded herself into thinking she is more important than she really is. Foolish romanticism doesn't lead her into a loveless marriage, worse, it leads to her destruction.

Where things take a dark turn is in her allegorical works, which construct a unique vision where the natural world is ambivalent and the humans have the most primal manners. These are stories that go beyond the fantastic, or even magical realism, which often sits with a reality that the reader is familiar with. Here Rodoreda reconstructs everything. In "Salamander" the story begins with an illicit rendezvous in the forest. But it takes a turn for the strange when the narrator is burned at the stake for having the relationship. As the flames swirl around her and the man she had the affair with stands with his wife watching her burn, she begins to melt and turns into a salamander. It is a Kafkaesque transformation, but for Rodoreda it is an opportunity to explore the recurrent image of a woman undone by men who take advantage of her. The salamander, instead of escaping, returns to the home of her lover to be with him, even if she is just sitting under the bed. Despite her escape she can't stay away from him. It is part of the confusion that leads her to say, "I began to pray for myself, because inside me, even though I wasn't dead, no part of me was wholly alive. I prayed frantically because I didn't know if I was still a person or only an animal or half-person, half-animal." Ultimately, she is forced to become an animal, but that world is no better than the human, and the story ends with three eels playing with one of her hands, which they have ripped off.  She finds herself between two worlds, a natural one that has a sense of continuity, it has always been there and it always will. And the human one, which by its nearness to the natural, gives one the impression that it will always continue too, and that the petty wives, cruel children, and the villagers ready to kill for so little will always continue on.

The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda show a writer who had a masterful grasp of storytelling and a willingness to experiment with different forms of writing. Her subtle and precise manner of examining the lives of women who convince themselves they want what is antithetical to them, makes the stories beautiful and troubling. Reading them is sure to leave one happy to be in the presence of a great writer, and just slightly melancholy by her exacting vision.