In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

In Diamond Square is an exile’s novel, written by Catalan author Mercè Rodoreda while she was living in Switzerland far from the clutches of Spain’s postwar dictatorship. It is a novel of memory, recalling the city of Barcelona that Rodoreda herself had not seen in decades.

In recalling the past, it’s heavily influenced by the style of James Joyce as we share the bouncing, scatty and sometimes extraordinary thoughts of its narrator. This is Pidgey (in this English version, though Colometa in the original Catalan), who lives through a series of often loveless relationships with her father and stepmother, and then various men.

One of the great achievements of the novel is that it is fun to read and brilliantly translated so that it is enjoyable despite the fact that I didn’t like the main character at all. Early twentieth century Spain was a brutal place, and “Pidgey” narrates the most gruesome details of her life in a matter-of-fact tone that is borderline psychopathic.

Indeed the novel is in some ways a tale of mental illness. Pidgey has breakdowns and other undiagnosed spats of mental disturbance which are rarely picked up on by anyone else. Everyone is just too busy trying to make sense of their lives in a society where if you want to get anything done, you have to do it yourself.

It is also unusual in that the Spanish Civil War breaks out mid-novel, but we only see its effects from the home front. Whereas other novelists concentrate on troops in the trenches or manning the barricades, Rodoreda shows us how ordinary women struggled through at home in Barcelona. The war causes starvation and family break-up, and worse of all is the news that arrives from the front of casualties and death, deaths which are often impossible to corroborate.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Like in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there are passages of beautiful writing, all tumbling out in a stream of consciousness:

They’d spent the night together in a requisitioned mansion where he did his guard duty because he belonged to some party or other. She said she got there at nightfall and it was October and when she opened the iron gate, she’d had to push it very hard because the last storm had stacked sand up behind it, and she’d walked into a garden full of ivy, box cypresses and tall trees, and the gusts of wind were blowing leaves from one side to another and all of a sudden, whish! a leaf hit her in the face, like a man rising from the dead.

This is one of those books that will stay with you for life, despite its relatively domestic setting in the heart of Barcelona. It has been translated twice into English and you may also find it under another title, The Time of the Doves. Personally, I thought this edition by Peter Bush was stylish and smooth, although I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the translation from the Catalan.