Monday, May 27, 2013

War, peace, love, family, life | The Time of the Doves

I was introduced to Mercè Rodoreda back in my early days of book blogging, through Three Percent and Open Letter Books. I read Death in Spring and thought the book was decidedly weird - but good. But, as is usually the case, I didn't really think much about Rodoreda until three years later, when I rather randomly bought La plaça del diamant (The Time of the Doves) in the Hebrew translation. I got it at Hebrew Book Week, as I was browsing through the output of a new-to-me publisher. Seeing the name tripped a wire in my memory, and so now, almost a year later, the verdict is in: Rodoreda is definitely a strange author, but I really, really enjoyed The Time of the Doves. Even if I'm not quite sure why.

So I liked the writing - a bit blunt, to-the-point, no loops or unnecessary lyricism that might drag the story down. No great heaving piles of interpersonal drama, but rather the much larger - and much smaller - drama of daily life during tumultuous times. I liked the brisk pace - it's a bit no-nonsense, like Rodoreda is frowning at me and saying, "Well, what did you expect? Do you really need to know what happens in those two years?" and my abashed answer would obviously have to be "No". It's a very crisp style, one that manages to say a lot more in a single paragraph than most authors can say in an entire chapter. This is exactly what all stream-of-consciousness should be like - expansive, but not rambling.

What I find most interesting about The Time of the Doves is how every reader seemed to view it differently. Some see a love story, others a family saga, others still a down-to-earth war story. One view even sees a story about the loss - and regaining - of identity. What does that say about the story? How can a single novel mean so many different things to so many different readers?

Personally, I fell in the camp of war story. The entire first half of the novel serves as a set-up for the Spanish Civil War, mainly through small hints and a subtle tense vibe. Obviously there's a bit of everything else in there too - our protagonist Natalia is not merely a figurehead for a historical story. We watch her mature, marry, have children, work, struggle, suffer and move on. The focus of the novel isn't on family, but it's impossible to extract the influence Natalia's husband and children have on her life - in fact, I would even say the way they take over her life. Yet even as this is a major theme - and critical to just about everything that happens in the book - the war looms larger. It's the war that serves as a backdrop for the most powerful scenes in the book. It's the war that catalyzes what has to be some of the quietest, most off-the-cuff dramatic scenes I've ever read. The war occupies every inch of the second half of the book, overwhelming it with fear and anxiety for both the characters and the reader. Even though most of the story takes place in peacetime, this was ultimately - for me - a story about a war.

I would say it's the strength of the small scenes scattered throughout The Time of the Doves that make it a good book. I liked everything overall, but a handful of pages really took my breath away. Because of the generally level tone, these scenes could have easily gotten lost in a worse-written book. But they didn't. Instead they managed to punch hard and fast, quickly slipping back into the general story tone. The effect may not suit all readers, but even if I'd thought the parts in between these scenes were weak (which I don't), I would probably still recommend The Time of the Doves. It's a classic for a reason - I'm very glad to have read it.

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