Daily life the key to war

In Di­a­mond Square

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew Clay­field Matthew Clay­field

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

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