Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal
As a rule, the British reading public (with the honourable exception of crime fiction fans) don’t like books in translation. As another rule, they don’t much like novellas either. Not even the crime fans this time.
Peirene Press is a new publishing house (new to me anyway) specialising in novellas in translation. And not just any novellas in translation, novellas by writers who are not already well known in the UK market.
Clearly, the folk behind Peirene are in for a challenge. What they bring in response to the massive indifference (if not outright antipathy) of the British reading public is books which are are interesting and unusual in their own right and which are beautifully printed and bound.
So far, Peirene have three books in their catalogue (with a fourth, translated by Anthea Bell, on the way). I’ve just finished the second of those: Catalan writer Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide.
Stone in a Landslide is an unusual work. It’s the story of a Catalan peasant woman named Concepció, known to everyone as Conxa (pronounced, I believe, Concha). The story, such as it is, is told in Conxa’s own words. It opens with her as a small child being taken by her parents to go live with her childless aunt and uncle. Her own family can’t afford to keep her, and the aunt and uncle could use another pair of hands. I shan’t say how it closes.
What’s impressive about Stone is how Barbal fits a whole life into so few pages. Conxa is a fully realised character. Hard working, respectful, perhaps not the brightest but not a fool either. She’s a woman who swallows her disagreements with others in the interests of harmony; she is unambitious and has little interest in matters beyond her own village and family; but too she is a loving wife, a mother and of course in time a grandmother.
In order to make Conxa credible Barbal fits her within a family and a community, and brings those to life too. We meet her constantly industrious Aunt Tia (Tia just being Catalan for aunt), her independent minded friend Delina, her husband Jaume and later her own children each different to the other. Not every character is as developed as the next, but how developed they are follows how important they are to Conxa so that those she cares for most are most real to the reader. That’s clever, because that’s how it would be were Conxa really telling us her life story.
Conxa comes of age in the years before the Spanish civil war. Her village is a poor one, with even the richer among them owning little. Life is hard work, and the people are unsentimental. They are peasants and have little formal education, but they know what they need to and are keen that their children should have better lives than they do.
Food and religion are at the centre of their world. The villagers come together at annual feasts, the family each day around communal meals. It’s a way of life as alien to our own atomised existences (mine anyway, for all I know this may be read by members of an agrarian commune) as it could be. Here, Barbal uses a description of food to show how Conxa’s aunt and uncle come to accept her as part of their home:
At first she tasted everything and she didn’t trust me at all but gradually she saw that I had sense and patience and she let me prepare the salads on my own. After that, the omelettes and vegetables, later the stews, and last of all, the soup. For my aunt and uncle, soup was sacred, and it was the badge of their trust in me when they at last let me make it. We had soup every day. Like bread, you had to have it.
There isn’t really a plot to Stone. Conxa grows up, falls in love and marries. She sees tragedy during the Spanish Civil War and experiences both joy and terrible suffering. She lives a life and tells us of it.
The language Barbal uses is simple, sparse even, as you’d expect given Conxa’s lack of formal education. At times the sentences even drift towards the obvious – but then that too helps it persuade. The focus flows as memory does. Things important to Conxa are described in intimate detail, such as her first meeting with her future husband. Then a decade can pass in a paragraph. In my own life too there are some half hours that stand out more in hindsight than other whole months.
Here’s that first meeting with her future husband. I thought this a lovely passage:
That Monday I went down to market with Oncle. We needed to buy something for the house and Tia sent me. When it was time to go back, Oncle said we had a lift from the blacksmith at Sarri. I was glad not to have to do that walk! When I got up onto the cart, my heart leapt into my mouth when I saw a bright smile and heard a voice say: How are the people of Pallarès? It was a young man, maybe the blacksmith’s son, who was making room for me. He was shorter than he appeared at first glance because he was very slim. Dark chestnut hair, a little bit wavy and combed with a side parting, wide forehead and small but lively eyes under finely-drawn eyebrows. A mouth that wasn’t too big but was always about to laugh, so much so that if he wasn’t smiling, the seriousness of his face was striking.
Oncle prefered to sit beside the driver in case he had to help lead the animals. At first I didn’t dare lift my eyes from my feet, almost hidden under my skirts, but soon I was laughing as I listened to Jaume. He was so open and full of charm that I quickly forgot my shyness. Even so, for the whole journey I couldn’t hold his gaze when he looked me in the eye.
Stone isn’t a flawless work. The vast bulk of the novella is Conxa speaking in the past tense. At one critical point though a chapter consists of a letter from cousins. I found the sudden change in style jarring. Similarly, for a chapter or two thereafter the tense changed from past to present. Again, this reminded me I was reading a book, not listening to Conxa speak.
Another criticism I’ve seen aired is that as a reader you are an observer of Conxa’s life and slightly distanced from it. I think that’s true, but I don’t think it’s an issue (it wasn’t for me anyway). Conxa is not an introspective woman. She tells you what happened to her and how she felt about it at the time, but she gives little thought to wider meanings. The reader’s role as observer puts them in the place of Conxa’s audience. As reader, you are hearing her story, not living it.
The final chapters of Stone have real power to them. Barbal captures the sense some old people have of having lived beyond their time. Conxa lives through the 20th Century, a time of huge change particularly for peasants (as Berger portrays in his Pig Earth which I discuss here). In a sense she survives to see the passing of her way of life and so finds herself in a world quite different to the one she regards as her own.
There’s a final point I want to bring out about Stone, and that’s the social comment it contains. Although Conxa doesn’t analyse or criticise her surroundings, through her they’re still visible. The tension between the republicans and the more traditional elements within her village are brought to life through the local priest’s increasingly pointed sermons. The class tensions of the village come through in how people react when Conxa’s family hit misfortune after having done well for themselves in the past. Gender roles too are addressed, again indirectly as here where Conxa reflects on her desire for a son:
I wanted a boy. I don’t know why. Maybe to protect us in the future, because he wouldn’t do anything he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t say he was fine when he was sick, and he wouldn’t see pitch black as white.
That paragraph speaks to me of how in Conxa’s world women must shape themselves to their circumstances, where men have a chance to shape their circumstances to them. It speaks of narrower choices, and freedoms curtailed by tradition and expectation. But then, there’s the quote I title this piece with too, recognising that for all women’s constraints they remain in these communities more important than the men who nominally rule them.
I didn’t love Stone in a Landslide, but I did enjoy it and I found the quiet stoicism it portrayed highly effective. It’s a good companion read to Pig Earth, and the way in which it shows the working of memory, the impact of history on the people within it, the passing of a way of life so ancient and so recently removed, all this is hugely impressive. All that and at its centre is a memorable character portrait of a woman of a sort not generally given a fictional voice. A woman acted on more than acting; one who simply wishes to live her own quiet existence with her family and her friends.
For me too many novels are about middle class writers or academics struggling with minor emotional crises within fundamentally comfortable lives. Too many novels give voice to people whose voice has always been heard. Stone in a Landslide gives a voice to a peasant woman with no desire to change the world and that perhaps is the most revolutionary thing about it.
By way of credit where it’s due, I first heard about A Stone in a Landslide through a review at A Common Reader, here. It’s seen a fair bit of attention from the blogosphere, there’s a slightly less positive review from Lizzy Siddal here (which itself links to a couple more reviews). Kimbofo had similar reservations here. I’ve also found a review by Andrew Blackman here. I’m sure I’m missing others, if you know of some please link to them in the comments.