Now on to today’s book, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal. Spanish Catalonia has a very distinctive culture of its own, with its own language, Catalonian, and many traditions and festivals unique to the region. I have long had an interest in the Pyrenees, not least because of the folk songs adapted for guitar by Miguel Llobet, and recently made popular by Catalan musicians like Toti Soler and Ester Formosa. If any readers have Spotify on their computer, then I would recommend listening to the album L’Arxiver De Tortosa, particularly songs like La Filadora (The Spinner) and Rossinyol (The Cuckoo). You will rapidly get a good impression of difficulties for an English speaker of the Catalonian language!
It was a pleasure to read Stone in a Landslide, the ficitional life-story of a Catalonian woman living in a village deep in the Pyrenees. The author, Maria Barbal, is a highly regarded Catalan writer and I can only admire the translators Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell who have done such a good job of translating the harsh tones of this difficult language into sparse but elegant English. The translation was supported by a grant from the Institut Ramon Llull who support the translation of works from original Catalan
The story is told in the first person by Conxa (real name Concepcion but whose family evidently needed something shorter in a noisy household to call out to one of their six children). Conxa is now an old lady of 80 and looks back on her life, reflecting on the events that shaped her and reluctantly accepting what has been a difficult journey for her. The voice the author gives her is totally convincing and changes through the book reflecting the innocence of childhood, the griefs and suffering of the years of the Civil War and the resignation of an old woman far from happy with life in the modern world.
The world of the small farmer in the early 20th century was constrained by a constant battle with the land. Large families meant a gang of potential helpers but also mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. At the age of eleven, the demands of six growing children living on one small farm are sufficient for Conxa’s parents to send here to live with her aunt and uncle. They do not live a great distance away, but far enough to make home visits almost an impossibility for the busy families struggling to make a living from their small farms.
Village life is far from being a rural idyll. As with all small communities, gossip is rife, and a new member of the community, however young, is not immediately accepted. Aunt Tia has no hesitation in using Conxa in the way she would her own daughter, which means life in the fields tending for crops and livestock. The struggles of rural life run through the book:
We’d spend the afternoon turning the green grass in Tres Aigues. It was getting dark. The breeze made a restless sound through the nearby hazel trees. I heard Oncle’s whistle and I picked up my my headscarf and felt the sweat burning the roots of my hair. When I took the scarf off I head all sorts of sounds, above all the noise of the flies. I ran to the cart as fast as I could but waited for Tia before I got in as she had stayed to close the gate. While I stood there, I looked at the land divided up into small irregular plots. I thought even the richest man here is still very poor.
As Conxa grows into her teens, she gains the attention of families who are looking for a wife for their sons. Romance has little to do with this, for,
What happens when the potential bride and groom visit each other? Some time is spent in the dining room and dowries are discussed, the best sausage and a porró of wine are brought out. Then left alone, the couple say a few things to each other full of timidity and awkwardness. Its a purchase like any other, but things that can’s be measureed come into it too. A person is too much to be bought and too little to live as he pleases . . .
Conxa however is able to marry for love. Jaume, the son of a blacksmith courts her and is reluctantly accepted by her aunt and uncle in exchange for his help on the farm, the renovation of their house, and all the money he earns. Strangely he seems happy to accept, and moves into to live with Conxa, a young family soon following to fill the spare rooms in the farm-house.
At this point the book takes a harrowing turn, for King Alfonso abdicates and the Republic is declared. The Civil War soon reaches the village and Jaume, who has now been appointed Justice of the Peace finds himself in the front-line. I will not go on to describe the story for fear of spoiling it for others, it contains scenes of drama, loss and unexpected deliverance. Conxa’s life follows the course of so many people who find their world changing around them, and we see her cope with the marriage of her son to a woman who turns out to be no friend to her, and the realisation that peasant life can no longer be sustained in the modern world.
This is a short novel (only 108 pages) but covers a vast amount of ground. The chapters are short, and its not difficult to imagine the elderly Conxa writing a short passage each day as she looks back on her life. The wisdom of age does not always lead to calm reflection and the anger and bitterness of some of the episodes has not been lessened by the years (but how could such painful events ever be soothed?). However, there are many descriptive passages which lift the heart and much fascinating detail about rural life in the Pyrenees.
The book is beautifully presented by Peirene Press with fold-in covers and clear typesetting. As a keen supporter of translations into English from other European languages, particularly the less well-known ones, I welcome this publication which joins such a small number of other Catalan books available to English speakers.
Title: Stone in a Landslide
Author: Maria Barbal
Publication: Peirene Press (2010), Paperback, 108 pages
The photograph of the church at Sant Clement de Taull is by flickr user Ainoha Pcb and licensed under Creative Commons