Tuesday, 12 March 2013

'Stone in a Landslide' by Maria Barbal (Review)

I always enjoy Peirene Press' novel(la) offerings, and I have read most of the works they have published so far.  Despite that though (and the fact that I'm a fairly organised person), I recently discovered an unread Peirene book lying neglected on my shelves.  It is from the first series, The Female Voice - and it is another excellent choice...

Maria Barbal's Stone in a Landslide (translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell) is a story about
the life of a Catalan woman, Conxa.  Over 120 pages, narrated in the first person, she tells the reader about her life, looking back over seven decades of personal events and national history.

The story begins with Conxa's move to her aunt's house at the age of thirteen, leaving her family so that the others can survive on their meagre income.  Despite only living a few kilometres away from her parents, it might as well be thousands.  In the Catalan countryside, people don't tend to move around much.

Conxa's formative years, while hard at times, seem simple and almost idyllic.  She gets on well with her aunt and uncle and gradually grows to enjoy life in the village.  When she meets (and falls in love with) Jaume, an itinerant handyman, her life seems to be falling into place.  However, this is Spain in the 1930s, and the shadows of war can already be seen on the horizon...

Stone in a Landslide couldn't be described as an eventful novella - it is spread over a lifetime but told at a measured pace, in a manner which can almost be detached.  In other hands, it may have been bloated into a three-volume epic, but Barbal instead crafts a simple tale, using short chapters and simple, effective language:
"...I liked the cousins from Barcelona coming up every year.  I enjoyed how they filled the house and embraced Oncle and Tia, wiping away tears and saying, This young lady gets lovelier every time, and what beautiful curly hair!  In Pallarès no one says "young lady" nor "lovely".  I understood those words even if I didn't use them and they pleased me, and I thought that a language is like a tool that each person picks up in their own way, even if it is used for the same purpose."
pp.28/9 (Peirene Press, 2010)

Of course, life in the country isn't easy, and the writer shows us the hardship the farmers go through in their attempts to get through another year.  Jaume, one of the few characters who doesn't always work on the land, can't quite understood their attitudes at times:
"He would say: people are more important than anything else.  I needed help to see this because I had been taught the opposite.  When the land and animals were taken care of, then you turned to people." p.47
This is particularly true for women, who must keep the home running while also helping out with farming duties.  With limited freedom and a mountain of troubles to bear, there is little time to think about your own hopes and dreams...

As well as relating Conxa's personal story, Stone in a Landslide also gives us a glimpse of life during the Spanish Civil War, and the way Spain (and much of the world) developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Conxa's time with Jaume is doomed to be short:
"He'd gone as quickly as a rose cut from the bush and I'd no last memory of him except a little spark as he looked at me during our strange goodbye.  I knew he was dead and I would never again have him 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." pp.95/6
She stolidly moves on, as always, ending the story in relative comfort in Barcelona.  However, we get the feeling that progress, running water and a life of ease have come at the cost of something more intangible, yet far more important...

Stone in a Landslide is a slow burner, a quiet yet impressive work.  It is by no means as dramatic as some of the other Peirene books, yet it fits into the stable nicely.  In fact, having now read all three of The Female Voice series, I can see how they do actually form a set, perhaps more so than is the case for the other series.  Along with Beside the Sea and Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, Stone in a Landslide looks at how women experience life - and how, at times, they are unable to do anything but hold on and hope the storm passes.  It may be a man's world (at least in these stories), but without a woman?  Well, you know the rest ;)