Daily life the key to war
In Diamond Square
By Merce Rodoreda Translated by Peter Bush Little, Brown, 224pp, $29.99
IN her 1959 collection of frontline dispatches, Faces of War, Martha Gellhorn describes how she came to turn her attention to the civilian dramas of modern warfare, the rendering of which, in carefully observed, highly empathetic prose, came to characterise her coverage of conflicts as varied as the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Six-Day War and Central American coups.
‘‘[ O]ne day, weeks after I had come to Madrid,’’ Gellhorn writes, ‘‘ a journalist friend observed that I ought to write . . . But how could I write about war, what did I know, and for whom would I write? What made a story, to begin with? Didn’t something gigantic and conclusive have to happen before one could write an article?
‘‘ My journalist friend suggested that I write about Madrid. Why would that interest anyone? I asked. It was daily life. He pointed out that it was not everybody’s daily life.’’
It is this essential truth that animates Gellhorn’s finest dispatches from that war: that the transformation of the quotidian under the crosshairs, into something at once recognisable and strange, can occasionally reveal something vital about the nature of conflict and the people it affects.
Merce Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square is about daily life in the same way: this is not everybody’s daily life. Previously published in English as The Pigeon Girl and The Time of the Doves, this Catalan-language novel was written during Franco’s reign while its author was in exile, first in France and then Switzerland. It details the courtship and marriage of its narrator, Natalia, to her headstrong beau, Joe; the events that befall her after he goes off to fight the fascists on the Aragon front; and the aftermath of Franco’s victory.
Connecting these separate movements is a subplot — usually hilarious, at times chilling, and finally deeply moving — about a flock of pigeons that Joe raises in the couple’s home and which Natalia, whom he nicknames Pidgey, has to look after as their number grows, peaks and eventually dwindles.
As far as the early, courtship passages go, the book often reads as though it was written to serve as a mnemonic for its author, to stave off the fading light of pre-fascist, and even prerepublican, Catalonia. The details pile up: a coffee-pot raffle, the too-tight elastic of a petticoat, a late-night dinner of octopus at the Monumental.
In one of the most stirring passages, Pidgey recalls in minute detail a morning walk through a marketplace on the eve of the Republic, which blends almost imperceptibly into the coming of the Republic: ‘‘ I still remember that blast of fresh air, whenever I remember that day, fresh air I have never breathed again. Never.’’
On the civilian experience of the subsequent war, the book is as finely observed as any of the journalism written at that time, and indeed often a good deal more affecting, animated not by the empathy of the outsider but by the direct experience of the victim. This is the difference between seeing someone else’s home destroyed and your own, between volunteering to cover the suffering of others and being one of the countless people who, last century as in this one, in Gellhorn’s words, ‘‘ stayed at home and had war brought to them’’. Pidgey fits this description: with certain important exceptions she is not someone who determines events, but someone to whom events happen. Partisan politics wash over her. (‘‘Joe was swept up in the excitement and paraded through the streets shouting and waving a flag. I never did find out where he got it from.’’)
She might in any case sense in such politics a false dichotomy: whether a woman is slaving for a bourgeois family whose son-in-law is a fascist, or for a brutish Loyalist husband who complains about aches and pains whenever he’s asked to lift a finger, she’s still slaving.
This is often a woman’s lot, in revolutions as much as counter-revolutions, on the Left as often as the Right. Rodoreda is highly sensitive to this and to its effects on one’s character. In one of the most revealing passages, Pidgey describes herself as being like cork: something that ‘‘ wasn’t easy to pare down because it wasn’t hard or soft’’. Her voice, two parts naivety to one part quiet indignation, could be described the same way. Rodoreda imbues her with another characteristic of cork, too: the ability to stay afloat. Mere survival is Pidgey’s mode of resistance, and in this does she most recall Gellhorn’s stoic madrilenos.
She recalls, too, the women and children of Baba Amr as they appear in Australian journalist Lauren Williams’s reports from Homs in Syria. And those of Ramallah, Balata and Hebron I met in the West Bank late last year. But this is not merely what war demands of a woman. It is what, in too many places, simply being a woman demands of a woman.
A female soldier on the frontline during the Spanish Civil War