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Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda’s profoundly disturbing novel, War, So Much War, presents a world where war has become commonplace, the inescapable reality of everything around us. Though there are specifics that situate her story in an environment not so far from Barcelona, as you turn the pages, you have no doubt that the setting is everywhere, the world we have come to live in post-9/11, including our own country sometime in the future. That situation does not make the story as depressing as it sounds but simply a growing reality like climate change or economic collapse. Hard to expect anything else when we’ve mucked everything up as much as we have and huge numbers of people are deniers of any change at all.
Fifteen-year-old Adrià Guinart runs away from home because of tensions with his mother and begins a period of wandering, mostly in the country. In one of the first incidents after his flight, he saves the life of a man who tried to hang himself, only to be met by the man’s frustrating question: “Why, why did you unhang me?” Thereafter, Adrià will not be so quick to get involved with other people. War had already broken out before he fled home but a conflict so amorphous that it is never quite clear who is fighting whom. Briefly, deserters recruit Adrià to flight but he escapes almost immediately and, thus, we never see him fighting. Moreover, there are no accounts of battle but, more importantly, evidence of the war everywhere he goes, as if he is completely surrounded by it.
It is the aftermath of brutal conflict that Rodoreda records so convincingly, a world destroyed by such conflict, though Adrià always appears to be just on the edge of it. He observes dead soldiers floating in rivers, men who have lost their limbs, militiamen in the distance, bombed buildings and entire villages destroyed, piles of bodies in some of the abandoned villages he passes through, occasional aircraft overhead, deranged survivors, and—too often—the unbearable stench of death. On the one occasion when he actually speaks to several tradesmen who have survived and asks them why people are fighting, this is what he hears: “The bricklayer said it was to beat back the enemy, but then the carpenter pointed out that, to our enemies, we are the enemy. The electrician said: Even if we win this war it’ll be as though we’ve lost it, the way war is set up, everyone loses. The hearth builder joined us and said that we could cry all we wanted and there would still be nothing to plow, we were all cannon fodder, nothing but cannon fodder.”
Mostly, the people Adrià encounters during his wanderings are good, decent people, often helping him. They give him food, a place to stay, provide him with work—two of them want to adopt him (in one case because they have lost their own sons to the war). Other people tell him the stories of their own lives. No one abuses him, exploits him, or tries to take advantage of him, implying that the war all round them has made them conscious of how precious life can be. But Adrià rarely stays any place for very long. As he tells one woman, “I was meant to roam the world.” Thus, life goes on. Although he treks through many barren areas where people no longer live, in other areas he encounters farmers planting their seeds and tilling their fields. In one village he observes a wedding.
The narration is complicated, with strange encounters and characters reappearing in later scenes. One older man whom Adrià stays with for a time leaves all of his possessions to the younger man after he dies, including all of his papers, which he asks Adrià to destroy. When Adrià reads what the man has written, he realizes that he is reading an account of his own life. On the final page, he reads a sentence written by the older man which asks, “Under what conditions can we become another?” There is an equally probing observation by another man who observes that if you lose your shadow, you have died.
Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War is a gripping story, passing as the account of the wanderings of a highly sensitive young man. As he tells us toward the end of the story, “I enjoyed nothing more than wandering through the world lost. Doing as I pleased no matter how things turned out, with no one giving me any advice. Seeing the sky, the forests, experiencing fear, contemplating the night and having it for a roof.” Under the surface story, Rodoreda is not afraid to probe man’s humanity in the face of ubiquitous warfare that ought to destroy mankind or—at the least—send it back to the Dark Ages. That is not what Adrià encounters with others but, rather, the will to survive. In the skillful translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, it is easy to understand why Mercé Rodoreda has been called “the most important Catalan writer of the twentieth century.”
Mercè Rodoreda: War, So Much War
Trans. by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent
Open Letter, 185 pp., $13.95