Last August I reread one of my favorite books, The Time of the Doves, by Merce Rodoreda, for the fourth or fifth time. I re-read it because I was about to travel to California and give my copy away as a thank you gift to my editor, Neesa Sonoquie, or as I’ve called her in print, my editorial Kung Fu Master. If you’ve ever had an editor turn your manuscript into confetti, in the most magnificent way possible, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a transcendent experience. I wanted to give Neesa this book because The Time of the Doves isn’t just one of my favorite books, it’s one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever come across in my life.
I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda from the writer Sandra Cisneros in 1995. I had the chance to meet Sandra in California, because she was speaking at an event my boyfriend at the time was organizing, and I rode along in the car while he drove her to her hotel. She was gracious and kind, shook my hand with a wonderful warm smile, and said after that if her mom could see all the flowers in the hotel garden she would start crying because they were so pretty. When I told her how much I admired her work, she told me about Rodoreda.
Not long after the event I found a second hand copy of of The Time of the Doves in a bookstore, and packed it along with several other books in a large backpack. I’d been saving my money and was off to Spain to travel and then see if I could make a living teaching English. The boyfriend was supposed to follow me there a month later, but he never showed up. That’s another story.
I was 24 and this was my first time traveling alone. Email wasn’t much a thing yet and neither were ATM cards. I had $3000 in travelers checks stuffed down the front of my pants and that was pretty secure. Even if I fell asleep on a train, no one was going to be able to undo my belt and rob me. When I needed cash I’d go to a bank and wait in line behind people who were smoking, and then when it was my turn I’d exchange for enough pesetas to last a few days.
If I’d wanted to supplement my funds before such time as I was established as an English teacher, I could have accepted the offers of a few old men who assured me that money was no object, or that what they proposed would not take long. This was attention you could get if you did something really provocative like be young and sit alone on a bench in the middle of the day, or carry a backpack at a bus station, even dressed like a boy. The first time that happened I was so shocked I truly realized the meaning of “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” That’s exactly how I felt. Later I just started threatening to hit people.
Traveling alone was illuminating in many ways, and my time in Spain (teaching English, etc.) turned out to be an important period for me, not just at that stage of my life, but for the stages that came next. The books I took with me were great companions, though I was hardly loyal to them. Every time I finished one I left it behind to lighten my load. I read them in no particular order, but as it happened I read Time of the Doves when I was traveling through Catalonia, Rodoreda’s native land. I hadn’t realized she was Catalán, and I knew nothing about her history or that of the region.
When I left for Spain I had the name of just one person I could look up, someone I had never met, a woman named Lizzie who was my father’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s step-daughter. Lizzie’s address included a city or province called Lleida, but once I was in the country I couldn’t find it on any maps. Paper maps were all you had to navigate with back then. Where was this mysterious city that didn’t exist? I must have spoken with someone, I don’t remember, who informed me that Lleida was Catalán for Lérida, or rather Lérida was Castillian for Lleida. That may have been evidence of the history of Franco’s war on regional languages, but as I say, I knew nothing of that at the time. So I went looking for Lleida, and found Lérida, and from there I managed to get ahold of Lizzie by phone, where she worked near a tiny village in the Pyrenees as an instructor at a rafting school. She invited me to come out for a few days, and so I took a bus up there. It was October now and the air was crisp and vivid, with bright clouds suspended over the road, in the gaps of blue sky I could see between the mountains. Different from the big cities I’d been in, the hot, arid south of the country, and the humid Mediterranean coast.
I’d been in Barcelona, Rodoreda’s city, walking the streets several decades after Natalia, her protagonist, survived the civil war there in the 1930s. Natalia tells her story, which begins before the war and continues much after, like a dream, but the most lucid, hyper-real and resonant of dreams. Today if you buy a copy of one of Rodoreda’s books you will find in them introductory essays by Sandra Cisneros. Naturally the publisher wants to pull these books written in the 1960s into the contemporary era, though these efforts are already over 20 years old. Rodoreda, who died in 1983, was a highly acclaimed writer with an international reputation who wrote many books. As far as I can tell, only three were translated into English. David Rosenthal, her brilliant English-language translator, was an important translator of Catalán literature, a poet, an editor, and an author who wrote mostly about the history of jazz. Sadly, he died young, at only 46. I wonder how many native English speaking writers exist that speak perfect enough Catalán to translate more of Rodoreda’s books. If the books have been translated into Spanish, I wonder if someone like me (an author with a translation background) could attempt it, but it would hardly be the same. Translators have to make thousands of decisions when doing their work, especially in literature. It’s an interpretation at many points. If you don’t translate something from the original, but from a previous translation, you will get something really strange, like the Bible.
In one of her essays, Cisneros quotes a French critic who says of Rodoreda and Time of the Doves, “One feels that this little working woman in Barcelona has spoken on behalf of all the hope, all the freedom, and all the courage in the world. And that she has just uttered forth one of the books of the most universal relevance that love—let us finally say the word—could have written.”
My days in the tiny mountain village with Lizzie, her Catalán husband and her younger sister who was there visiting too, were rare and magical. We hiked up into the mountains, where shaggy horses grazed, and picked buckets of tiny blackberries to make a cobbler back at home, which added to the best meal I’d eaten for ages. I’d been eating and sleeping on the cheapest scraps I could find during my travels and eating well was a thrill. Even better, I slept in the attic on a kind of traditional futon stuffed with wool, which is the best thing I’ve ever slept on before or since. They say wool has many extraordinary qualities, like the ability to wick away both moisture and any kind of negative energy. I would attest to that.
Once after midnight we drove along a small winding road and crossed the unmarked border into France to visit an ancient Roman hot springs. We took off our clothes in a pitch black shed and then stepped into the steaming water. The sides of the tub—if tub is the right word—were perfectly even, rounded stone that the water just superseded, so that the surface was an unbroken mirror of stars.
When I left the village to get back on the road I left my copy of The Time of the Doves with Lizzie, having read the last page on that marvelous wool futon.
Several years later in grad school in Massachusetts, where I went to study “Hispanic Literatures,” I read The Time of the Doves for a paper I was attempting to write on the modernization of Spain, comparing Rodoreda’s novel with a classic of Spanish literature, La Gaviota (The Seagull). The book struck me in this second reading in a way that it hadn’t quite before. Maybe being a little older and a little more mature helped. I was so in awe of it that I seriously considered changing my concentration from Latin American literature to Spanish, but in the end I didn’t. I was already in too deep, and was also too interested in seeking out Latin American Jewish writers. So my relationship with Rodoreda’s writing never turned academic, it stayed personal.
I read The Time of the Doves again several years later when living in Vancouver, Canada, a reprieve from the days of medical crisis that dominated the first few years of my child Asa’s life. I reached the last page and was as floored by its beauty as if I’d never read it before. I spent some minutes staring at the ceiling, held motionless under its powerful spell. Several more years later, in Victoria, more than 20 years since the first time, I read it again so I would have it in my mind and heart while I didn’t have it on my shelf—the temporary interim between giving Neesa my copy, and replacing it with another one. I tend to forget most of the details in the years between readings, and since we read differently in different life stages, the experience, though familiar, is always new.
I look forward to the next time.
Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.
Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.