Mercè Rodoreda, In Diamond Square (1962, Translation by Peter Bush, Virago 2013)
Before the meeting: I came to this book with inaccurate expectations. Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes it on the cover as ‘the most beautiful novel published in Spain since the Civil War’, which I misread, lazily, as ‘about the Spanish Civil War’. True, the action of the novel spans the years of the Civil War, which is a major element in the story, but it would be quite a stretch to say the novel is about the war. The novel tells the story of Natalia, a naive, uneducated young woman from Gracia, then a poor area of Barcelona rather than what the internet now calls ‘one of the city’s hippest areas’. She marries a volatile young man whose entrepreneurial ambition fills their apartment, bizarrely and malodorously, with pigeons. The Civil War disrupts their family life when her husband and their male friends joins the militia – we see none of the combat, and none of the reasons for the war are discussed or explained, but we stay within Natalia’s narrow horizons, following her through wretchedness, deprivation, despair and unexpected happiness (though, to save spoilers, not necessarily in that order).
It’s a gripping story, with some brilliant images, but the thing that struck me most strongly was the language. Natalia is the narrator, and her voice is what makes the novel what it is. She begins:
Julie came to the cake-shop just to tell me they would be raffling coffee pots before they got to the lucky posy; she’d seen them and they were lovely, an orange split in two, showing its pips, painted on a white background. I didn’t feel like going to the dance or even going out, after I’d spent the whole day selling cakes and my fingertips ached from tying all those gilded raffia knots and handles. And because I knew Julie could manage on as little as three hours’ sleep and didn’t mind whether she slept or not.
She begins as she plans to go on, with leaps in logic (from the coffee-pot design to the question of whether she will go out or not, omitting to mention that Julie had come to take her there), syntax that doesn’t quite cohere (‘And because’ – huh?), attention to details that lead nowhere (‘an orange split in two’ etc), lack of orientation (who is Julie?), unexplained cultural references (are we supposed to know what ‘the posy’ is?), and so on. Then it took me a moment to figure out that the third they was a different they from the first two, that Julie is talking about the coffee pots, not the people who were raffling them, and because that tiny awkwardness feels like the kind of thing that happens in translation, I lost confidence as a reader , and as I read on I couldn’t tell how much of the narrative voice was Natalia’s and how much was the sound of Peter Bush wrangling the transition from Catalan into English. I wasn’t necessarily critical of the translation: perhaps this is one of those books that defies translation – as I imagine Malcolm Knox’s The Life to be. (A literal translation of DK’s ‘Well yeah … but no’ would probably leave Catalan readers floundering, but how else do you translate it?)
I read on, enjoying the book, but my unease about the translation persisted, and about a hundred pages from the end I turned to the Internet for help. I don’t know what I expected, but I found an excellent article from the British journal The Translator, ‘Language and Characterization in Mercè Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant‘ by Helena Miguélez Carballeira, which discusses the language of the book in the context of two previous translations. According to Ms Carballeira, Natalia’s discourse is what the boffins call escriptura parlada – spoken writing. Mercè Rodoreda sets out to ‘trace the discursive peculiarities’ of the uneducated Catalan working-class. Her speech is also full of features that mark it as peculiar to Barcelona, and is full of the euphemism, attention to detail and diminutives that mark stereotypically feminine speech. More than that, Carballeira argues (and I’m persuaded) that
Natàlia is a woman who feels uneasy with the very act of speaking. … The characteristics of [her] conversational, unmediated speech as a discursive device in the novel are rather predictable: there is an extensive use of idioms and colloquialisms, interjections and onomatopoeias. This yields a constant, highly idiomatic, non-straightforward use of language.
That is to say, Natalia is at least as big a headache for a translator as Knox’s DK.
A gauge of the difficulty of the task is the differences between translations. Carballeira discusses a number of fascinating examples. Here’s just one, quoted in a discussion of Natalia’s use of euphemism:
The original Catalan (1962):
I mentre em dedicava a la gran revolució amb els coloms va venir el que va venir, com una cosa que havia de ser molt curta.
From Eda O’Shiel’s The Pigeon Girl (1967):
And while I devoted my energies to the grand revolt against the pigeons, there took place what had to take place, and it seemed as if it would be over quickly.
From David H Rosenthal’s The Time of the Doves (1986):
And while I was working on the great revolution with the doves the war started and everyone thought it was going to be over quickly.
From Peter Bush’s In Diamond Square (2013):
And while I was waging my big revolution against the pigeons, what was brewing came, that they said would be a two-day wonder.
Having read this article when I was struggling, part way through the book, I had a much better time with the rest. Some of Peter Bush’s decisions had confused me. For example, he names Natalia’s husband Joe, possibly as what Carballeira calls a domesticating strategy, but when I read that his name is Quimet in the original I realised that the discord between his English name and his Catalan context had niggled away at the edge of my mind, creating a sense of unreality like the one in some CGI movies, where figures don’t quite seem to touch the ground. And another example: Joe/Quimet refuses to call Natalia by her name but calls her Pidgie, without explanation of where the name comes from – to my ear that sounded a bit like Piggsy, and so vaguely insulting, and it was a long way into the story that I realised it was short for Pigeon, and that Joe/Quimet was obsessed with those birds; in the original he calls her Columeta, which my computer translates from the Catalan as, you guessed it, Pigeon. Maybe to a British ear ‘Pidgie’ sounds more affectionate than ‘Pigeon’, but ‘Pigeon’ would have worked fine for me.
This experience makes me suspect that if I’m going to read books in translation a little bit of research will make the whole experience go better. As it happens I’ve been to Barcelona, so quite a few of the local references – Tibidabo, Parc Güell, etc – made immediate sense to me. If I hadn’t been there, I doubt if I would have bothered to get out a map, but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea. (I do think I was right, though, not to read the author’s spoilerish 1982 ‘Prologue’ until after I’d read the book.)
The meeting: We were astonishingly unanimous in our responses to the book. We’d all enjoyed it; we’d all been at least mildly disconcerted by the language, though when someone read a short passage aloud, its ‘written speech’ qualities were obvious; we’d all engaged with Natalia and formed strong opinions about Joe/Quimet; and I think we’d all had our heartstrings / tear ducts activated. There was an attempt to get someone to read the last couple of pages, which are full of sweet, kind-of-sexual tenderness, but no one was up for the challenge. We enjoyed the book so much we contemplated staying with Catalonia for our next meeting, and reading The Sun Also Rises, Homage to Catalonia and perhaps something by Colm Toibín. (We decided against it, and will be heading off to Norway instead with Karl Ove Knausgaard.)