Weirdfictionreview.com’s 101 Weird Writers: #8 – Mercè Rodoreda

The Weirdness and Estrangement in "The Salamander"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Mercè Rodoreda (1908 – 1983) was an important postwar Catalan writer whose novel La plaça del diamant (translated as The Time of the Doves, 1962) has been translated into over twenty languages. Rodoreda fled to France during the Spanish Civil War and, robbed of her home and language, wrote almost nothing for nearly two decades. She began to write short stories as a way of reclaiming her voice, and many of these tales contain more than a touch of the surreal or fantastical. Rodoreda often used the weird in the service of transformation and commentary on repression, ignorance, and other unfortunate human behaviors. As argued by regular contributor Larry Nolen, Rodoreda’s short story “The Salamander” (1967), found in The Weird via Martha Tennant’s exquisite translation, fits comfortably within that artistic mission.

– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”

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The word “weird” does not have an exact cognate in the Romance languages.  Whereas synonyms for “weird” include “bizarre, odd, or strange,” in Spanish extraño  – or in Catalan, estrany – can also denote foreignness or that quality of estrangement in people where one is separated by chance or will from the rest of humanity.  It is very difficult to sum up this emotional state in a single pithy English expression, as the closest equivalent is the borrowed French estrangement, which carries a more pejorative connotation than it does in English.

Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda’s fictions are imbued with estrany.  In her 1967 short story, “The Salamander,” we see a nameless village girl who is hounded by her fellow villagers after being seduced by a married man:

But ever since the day his wife took him away, people in the village have looked at me as if they weren’t looking at me, some furtively making the sign of the cross when I walked by.  After a while, when they saw me coming they would rush inside their houses and lock the doors.  Everywhere I heard a word that began to haunt me, as if it were born from light and darkness or the wind were whistling it.  Witch, witch, witch.  The doors would close and I walked through the streets of a dead village.  When I glimpsed eyes through parted curtains, they were always icy.  One morning I found it difficult to open the front door, a door of old wood split by the sun.  In the center of it, they had hung an ox head with two tender branches wedged in the eyes.  I took it down – it was heavy – and, not knowing what to do with it, left it on the ground.  The twigs began to dry, and as they dried, the head rotted; and where the neck had been severed, it swarmed with milk-colored maggots.

Here the multiple senses of extraño/estrany can be seen.  Not only do we see the bizarre detail of a quickly-rotting ox head with rapidly drying twigs in its eye sockets, now flush with teeming swarms of maggots, but we experience the distance forced between the narrator and the villagers because of her seduction.  “Witch, witch, witch”:  such damning words only a few centuries ago, and yet they still have a faint echo of nefarious power to them even today.

Rodoreda has set up in this single paragraph two complementary yet different events:  the weirdness of the head and the estrangement of the narrator.  Each ties into the other.  As she is persecuted and eventually dragged to a stake to be burned alive, the strangeness about and around her becomes ever more pronounced.  A headless pigeon.  A premature, stillborn sheep.  The difficulty in starting the fire and after that, the transformative effects of the fire.  These scenes and details are then filtered through the intimate third-person point of view of a bewildered, yet ultimately curious young woman fascinated by the changes in her condition, both physical and metaphorical. All of these elements coalesce to create a weird tale of transformation.

This combination of strange-as-setting and strange-as-emotional-condition makes several other of Rodoreda’s fictions undeniably compelling.  Much of this is probably due to Rodoreda’s own personal experiences.  A rising Catalan writer during the turbulent 1930s, she was forced to flee into exile, first to France and then Switzerland after the outbreak of World War II.  This exile affected her output, as she wrote virtually nothing from the 1938 publication of Aloma until the 1958 publication of the collection Twenty-Two Stories.  Several of these stories later appeared in Martha Tennant’s translation in the 2011 collection Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda, which also included later stories such as “The Salamander”.

Unlike her pre-war writings, which were more psychological in nature, Rodoreda’s post-war short fictions utilize vivid, strange imagery to convey a sense of loss and separation.  Take for instance this snippet from “The Mirror:”

I woke when it was still dark.  Someone beside me was weeping.  The smell of night and wind reached me.  He had returned.  I felt the suffering, and it calmed me.  He wept with his face close to my back; the smell of wind and night were in his hair.   Against my skin I could feel his burning breath broken by sobs.  Another breathing, within my belly, burned me.  Every drop of blood gathered together to create flesh.  I lay very still, observing the shadows in the corners of the room.  Dawn would devour them.  I held a monster within me, a footless, handless monster.  I thought my belly moved, that hands were forming as I watched, determined to emerge.  A bitter, sour taste coursed into my mouth.  He wept, and I fell asleep.

Here the narrator is mourning the impending loss of her husband, Roger, while pondering their son that she is bringing to term.  The act of generation is here described in visceral terms, with the blood drops “gathered together to create flesh.”  In her despair, she sees their unborn child as a “footless, handless monster.”  “The Mirror” thematically resembles “The Salamander” n both its reflection upon loss and betrayal and its use of the irreal to accentuate the narrator’s emotional stresses.

Rodoreda’s posthumous novel, Death in Spring, like “The Salamander,” utilizes a Catalan village setting to explore the nature of human relations and a search for identity.  Published in 1989, Death in Spring further explores the dual senses of alienation and self-discovery through the eyes of a young village girl.  Whereas “The Salamander” used fire imagery to describe the narrator’s transformation, in Death in Spring water, particularly a local stream, serves as a metaphor for change:

I lowered myself gently into the water, hardly daring to breathe, always with the fear that, as I entered the water world, the air – finally rid of my nuisance – would begin to rage and be transformed into furious wind, like the winter wind that nearly carried away houses, trees, and people.

Throughout the novel, water is never a metaphor for peace.  Instead, it is a destructive force, one that batters bridges, bludgeons unfortunate souls who venture into its treacherous depths, all while reinforcing the cruel capriciousness of people, even as they grow estranged from each other.  Rodoreda’s characters are often cruel and distant from one another, as in the case of their treatment of prisoners as caged animals to be tortured before they are killed.  One character, referred to by the narrator simply as “Senyor,” is sentenced to die by having cement poured down his gullet until he suffocates.  This concrete metaphor for the silencing of dissenters echoes “The Salamander”’s treatment of foreigners/outsiders as nefarious agents who must die by fire.  Zealotry and irrational fear, Rodoreda reminds us, often leads to human loss and suffering, while also dehumanizing those who perpetuate such inhumane treatment upon other human beings.

In Rodoreda’s fictions, the weird is not just something inexplicable that occurs within a narrative, but also a commentary on human relations.  We see in Death in Spring a girl who munches on bees, followed shortly by a young boy who, after venturing into the treacherous waters underneath the village bridge, is mutilated by the waters as the villagers watch on, some with apparent glee.  “The Salamander” focuses on a shapeshifter, one who suffers at the hands of villagers, who in turn cannot condone a “witch” yet also cannot comprehend why the fire alters her.  In these tales, Rodoreda portrays that sense of alienation, of being extrany, while utilizing strange, weird imagery to act as symbols of this separation of humans from communion with one another.  In doing so, she creates narratives that operate on several thematic levels, with each interpretation complementing another, leading to poignant stories that are powerful precisely because they stimulate both our senses and our minds.