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by Mercé Rodoreda
Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Reviewed by Charlotte Simpson

Death in Spring, Mercé Rodereda's last novel, originally published in Catalan in 1986, is a strange and disturbing book. The story opens in the spring as the narrator, an unnamed fourteen year old boy, takes a swim in the river that surrounds his village. He lyrically describes the 'glass cloud' of the water, the sunlight, the spiders that spin webs 'from leaf to leaf', but very quickly it becomes clear that this is no rural paradise. Life in the boy's village is founded on shocking acts of ritual violence. Some of these rituals are understandable. At festival time, a young man is chosen to swim under the village to check that the stones on which it stands are still sound. He will die or be horribly mutilated during the task, but it assures the villagers that stability will continue. Other rituals are bizarre. Those accused of theft are incarcerated and tortured until they lose their humanity and they neigh like horses. Yet these creatures are loved and respected by the villagers.

One of the most important rituals is the capture of souls. Before a person's last breath, cement is poured into their stomach to ensure that their soul can't escape into the ether. The body is then sealed up in a tree trunk. It's both horrible but understandable. During this ceremony the children of the village are locked into cupboards, but the boy narrator sees his father die this way. From that point he is destined to be outside of village life.

Death in Spring is very different from any other story I've read. It's strange and unsettling but still compelling, and it has stayed with me for many weeks as I try to work out its meaning. The obvious conclusion is that it is about the corruption of what is natural, as is death in the season of new life and rebirth. But the book's blurb says that it can be read as a metaphor for Spain under the Franco regime, so I shall be revisiting Death in Spring to see what I can discover by a second reading.