8.11.12

Peirene Press Readathon, No. 2: 'Stone in a Landslide' by Maria Barbal

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal is the second book in the wonderful Peirene Press Readathon that I am doing with Sam from Tiny Library; starting last week, we are reading our way through the nine Peirene Press novellas currently published as well as stopping every three books to discuss the thematic trio's themes and differences. Peirene Press, for those who don't know, is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which, for some reason or other, have not been translated into English before now.

So, after last week's journey on the French coast in Beside the Sea, Stone in a Landslide is a Catalan tale from the Spanish Pyrenees, published originally in Catalan - the national language of Andorra and a co-official language in parts of Spain, such as Catalonia and the Balearics - in 1985. It is the story of Conxa, a Pyrenean woman born around the turn of the 20th century, whose life in the Pyrenees in punctuated by work, marriage, child-rearing and, most importantly, the Spanish Civil War, after which it changes irrevocably.

Conxa is a stoical, hard-working woman, raised on the land and to swallow down hardship, who feels the effects of time's passing and random will over every part of her life, which by turns is joyous, brightened by work and family, and horribly, crushingly sad. She is born in a village called Ermita but, as her parents have more children than they can feed, is sent off to work on the farm of her Aunt Tia in the village, Palleres, where she makes her long-time home. As readers, we experience her very personal viewpoints on work, of her falling in love, of raising her children, of caring for relatives and being part of a community, as well as getting swept up quite blindly in the Spanish Civil War and then her feeling life's slow and inevitable decline. A lesser character might become boastful when things are good or despondent when things are sad, but Conxa is a stoic and a pragmatist,  and her lack of formal education means that this novella is written in language that is solid and clear, with little unnecessary flair, that feels tied to the land and the region.
She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here, still, for days and days...' (p89)
She sees the world change but does not resent it for doing so, whilst also becoming increasingly objective about her family and the world around her; by the final sentence (which I am not going to give away here), she seems to have let go of her grasp and desire for a world which has taken so much, and left her with so little.
I knew he was dead and I would never have him again at my side, because war 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, and I had nothing apart from still being alive. (p95)
Stone in a Landslide's Conxa reminded me of Pelagia, a character from Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which is one of my all-time favourite novels, in the way that she revels in a world she knows and falls in love in, only for war and death to rip her life to shreds and for her to grow old and lose touch as the world moves ceaselessly on without her. There is also the same feeling of children - or in Pelagia's case, the children she raises as her children - growing apart from their mother and how this change is confusing and saddening, as also how grandchildren can be both the revival of past members of a generation and also alien beings, raised in a completely different world.

I didn't find this book as immediately engaging as Beside the Sea, perhaps because the pace is much slower and the voice is less frantic, but this is an important, vividly drawn book about life, love, loss and growing old, as well as a comment on the changing relationship that people have with regions, community and with the land.

Other reviews in the Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Sam's)

Title:  Stone in a Landslide
Author: Maria Barbal, translation from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 1985, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 126 pages, and I was sent it, along with the rest in the series, by Peirene Press, to review as I wished.
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