Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Stone in a Landslide: Maria Barbal

Peirene Press specialises in novellas translated from a variety of European languages - this one was written in Catalan and tells the story of Conxa - brought up in a remote village in Spain before the Spanish Civil war changed everything.  It’s a story of a particular kind of innocence that provides no protection against the world of complex national politics.  ‘War,’ Conxa writes ‘is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright.  And I was barefoot with my children......’ 

Peirene Press gives us access to literature not usually available in English, written in very different literary traditions - and that’s why I like them so much.  They aren’t manufactured in a literary world dominated by media marketing gurus and the creative writing factories of Britain and the USA.  Stone in a Landslide was first published in 1985 and is a Catalan classic.

It belongs to a much gentler tradition of oral story-telling.  It’s a memoir of a life lived with no big events other than birth, marriage, sickness and death and no narrative hooks other than the desire to know what happens to the shy compliant girl, forced to leave her home because there isn’t enough food to go round. In the early years of the twentieth century, when peasant communities across Europe were still isolated and impoverished, Conxa is sent to live with a childless aunt.

All the bewilderment of someone who has never been out of sight of their home at any time in their life is conjured up in the novel as Conxa is taken to a nearby village to be handed over to her aunt and Uncle.  Because travel can only be afforded on foot, Conxa knows that she will rarely see her parents or brothers and sisters again.

Conxa has been brought up to obey - to keep quiet - not to have an opinion.  Fortunately her uncle and aunt are kindly and she is allowed to marry the man she falls in love with.  Her delight is in the landscape, in the daily tasks of feeding animals, fetching in the hay, cooking food for her family - she has no interest in politics and is happy to believe the priests who tell her that it is God’s will that everyone keeps their allotted places.  But for her husband Jaume, it’s different.  The world Conxa lives in is about to be changed and she has only her own courage and integrity to carry her through.

Other Peirene Press titles I’ve enjoyed:

The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul
The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg
Maybe This Time - Alois Hotschnig

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