Many people rush through the Plaça del Diamant on their way from the Fontana metro towards the Verdi cinemas, or pass quickly through this undistinguished square on the way to the more popular and beautiful Gràcia squares of Vila de Gràcia or La Virreina.
But stopping for a moment, one notices along one side of this fairly ordinary square, a low, black sculpture of a naked woman screaming—in anguish or perhaps liberation. She is surrounded by pigeons. The monument commemorates a scene toward the end of the novel La plaça del Diamant, and the woman is its heroine, La Colometa, the Pigeon Girl. Written by Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1984) in an intense spring and summer 1960 of her Geneva exile, it was a huge critical and popular success when it came out in 1962.
English-language readers are not spoiled for choice if they want access to literature written in Catalan. In the Nineties, only one novel translated from Catalan was published in the UK, the late Jesús Moncada’s The Tow-path (El camí de sirga). This month, the third translation into English of La plaça del Diamant, under the title In Diamond Square, is published by Virago. In its 50 years in print, it’s been translated to 28 languages. In 2008 it was translated for the third time into Italian and sold 30,000 copies in its first six months. Peter Bush, Barcelona resident and translator of In Diamond Square told me, “It’s a common assumption that novels in translation are necessarily difficult to read and of minority interest. In Diamond Square is very readable.”
By 1962, the Franco dictatorship, then in the 23rd year of its hold on the country, was obliged to liberalise slightly as its economic and political isolation ended. It was becoming possible to publish in Catalan again after two decades of the severest military, economic and linguistic repression. Rodoreda’s novel became a symbol of Catalan literature emerging from the dark.
Joan Sales, Rodoreda’s publisher, tells the story of the première of the 1982 film of La plaça del Diamant: “A crowd of several thousand men and women packed the Rambla de Catalunya outside the cinema...When Mercè Rodoreda with difficulty crossed that tightly packed crowd, one of the longest and most deafening ovations I have heard in my life broke out... See, I said to myself, how 40 years of the profoundest persecution has not been able to suppress our people...which knows how to thank an author who spreads beyond the limits of our nation a language and literature that implacable persecution has not been able to kill.”
A successful writer in an oppressed language becomes more than a writer, she becomes representative. Yet despite the hype, the novel has to be good to bear this weight. And La plaça del Diamant is a stunning novel. It reads like a thriller. Many readers comment how they devoured it at one sitting. Rodoreda’s skill makes us want to read right to the end to know what’s going to happen to her heroine, Natàlia or, as she will forever be remembered to everyone who has read the novel, La Colometa.
Narrated in the first person, the book opens in the Plaça del Diamant at the Festa Major de Gràcia, where La Colometa first meets Quimet—for whom she breaks off her engagement to another man. The story starts out during the last years of the Spanish Republic, and documents La Colometa’s life through the Spanish Civil War and then against the backdrop of the Franco dictatorship, and up to the mid-Fifties.
Their marriage starts with the sexual passion of “a week of wedding nights” and riding out fast on Quimet's motor-bike. Her life veers between this excitement and drudgery as the feckless Quimet’s furniture-making workshop declines. He starts to breed pigeons, but gives them away, while she feeds them, cleans the cages and looks after their two children, all the time working as a cleaner.
When the Civil War erupts, Quimet and his friends Cintet and Mateu go off to fight. The effects of war bring her to the end of her strength; destitute, she considers killing her two children and herself. Rodoreda’s character struggles to come to terms with her love for Quimet, with loss and moving forward into another kind of life. The denouement of the book is subtle and moving. You will have to read it to understand why La Colometa screams in Diamond Square.
The greatest achievement of the book is the vigour and consistency of La Colometa’s narrative voice. She is ignorant, ingenuous, at times downtrodden, but also sensitive and perceptive, as her very detailed descriptions of everyday life and shifting feelings show. Rodoreda has La Colometa dwell on things: domestic utensils, weather, the feel of a wall under her fingers, shapes and lights. At times, the book reaches stream-of-consciousness intensity, though usually in quick sentences that push the narrative forward. Much of the writing has the extreme sensitivity often associated with lyric poets, but it is not precious or abstract. “It is one of the few novels about women in wartime narrated by a working-class woman,” says Peter Bush.
The book is a sustained tour-de-force, taking us through the Republic, Civil War, the victory of fascism and into the dictatorship. It explains 25 years of Catalan history, but without mentioning a single public event. History is seen through the eyes of this working-class woman with her feet on the ground. On the outbreak of the military uprising, in July 1936 (though the book mentions no dates), while Quimet “was running through the streets” with the other young men, and as her friend Julieta joins the militia, too, La Colometa finds the grocer has run out of food, there’s no gas, no milk. Yet she is not the passive housewife. She too is conducting her revolution: getting rid of the pigeons that enslave her.
In her introduction, reprinted in this new translation, Rodoreda rejects firmly a criticism by the Mallorcan novelist, Baltasar Porcel, that La Colometa is “simple-minded”. “She does what she has to do in her situation in life”, Rodoreda rejoins and compares her character with other famous literary heroines. “I think La Colometa is more intelligent than Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina and no-one’s ever thought of saying they were simple-minded. Perhaps because they were rich, dressing in silk.” We could add that Natàlia could hardly have told the story of her life so acutely if she were “simple-minded”.
I asked Peter Bush about the problems of translating such a particular voice as Natàlia’s. “The right voice is key to any successful translation. I prepared myself by reading several novels about the working-class from the Thirties or Alan Sillitoe, whose characters speak non-standard English. I read Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate for the impact war has on ordinary people. And I drew on my own experience; my mother lived six years through the Second World War with my father away and in later years, she never stopped talking about it.” Impressed, I ask him if he always prepares a translation so thoroughly. “With books that are really original, I try to read around them. Translators…are important gatekeepers, especially when ushering the literature of a ‘minority’ culture into the space of world literature.”
After decades of isolation, this year sees several Catalan books in English translation. Three of them are classics, all three translated by Peter Bush: In Diamond Square, Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales (who was also Rodoreda’s publisher), and Josep Pla’s The Grey Notebooks. There are several others, by contemporary writers such as Francesc Serés or Najat El Hachmi. Why this sudden flurry? In part, due to Catalunya being the guest country at the 2007 Frankfurt book fair and also through the translation subsidies offered by the Ramon Llull Institute.
In Diamond Square is highly unromanticised, the non-epic counterpoint to, say, André Malraux’s account in Days of Hope of anarchists racing in their wild heroism across the Plaça de Catalunya up against machine-guns. It articulates the fight to survive war and hunger through the consciousness of a young, working-class mother. No excuse not to read it now! You will be moved by La Colometa’s indomitable spirit.