This week, my literary journey in the Around Europe in 14 Books challenge took me from France down the Iberian Peninsula, to Spain. Once again, I chose a Peirene book: Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide.
Peirene’s books are promoted as less-than-200-page award-winning books that can be read in a two-hour sitting, the same time it takes to watch a DVD. They are indeed short works (novellas) but for me, it’s impossible to read a whole book in two hours as I’m a bit of a slow reader and I need multiple breaks. However, with this Spanish novella, I sat through all of it in one sitting of about four hours (including the breaks).
It was easy to do so, not only because it’s barely 120 pages long but because the main character and her story were totally captivating. Take a look at my review below to know how.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #13: Spain
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal
Original name: Pedra de tartera (Catalan)
Author: Maria Barbal
Translators: Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell
Publisher: Peirene Press
Series: Peirene’s Female Voices: Inner Realities Series
Genre: literary fiction, women’s fiction
Location: Pallars and Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The beginning of the 20th century: 13-year-old Conxa has to leave her home village in the Pyrenees to work for her childless aunt. After years of hard labour, she finds love with Jaume – a love that will be thwarted by the Spanish Civil War. Approaching her own death, Conxa looks back on a life in which she has lost everything except her own indomitable spirit.
This is the story of Concepciò, known as Conxa in short, and her growth into adulthood. It is also the story of societal changes in Spain, the changes that inevitably come about from one generation to another. Changes that are also brought about by civil unrest.
The novella is divided into three parts. In the first part, Conxa tells about her childhood in the small mountain village of Ermita. Her position as the fifth child out of six in a hard-working family and in times of poverty spells out Conxa’s future. She is sent to her mother’s sister and her husband (Tia and Oncle) in Pallars, who have no children of their own but have lots of work to be done on the land they own. Conxa is sad and petrified ahead of this significant change, however, she soon learns that the strict Tia and the taciturn Oncle actually respect her. She grows up with them, working hard both in and out of the house, and soon she almost forgets about her family in Ermita.
Conxa faces another change when she meets and falls in love with Jaume, a tradesman from Montsent. He’s in love too, even though she’s extremely shy while he’s more open and charming. There’s one lovely line that perfectly encapsulates the effect of this encounter on Conxa:
It was as if he’d been born to take away my fears, to bring light where I saw darkness and to flatten what felt like a mountain to me.
The second part of the novella focuses on their married life (a marriage which was at first opposed by her family because Jaume is not a farmer). For Conxa, life goes on as it did before, working hard day and night while Jaume is often away repairing houses. Eventually, three children – two girls and finally the male heir – come along. It’s far from an idyllic marriage: Conxa sometimes has doubts about whether Jaume’s love is the same like hers. However, there is certainly deep respect from the husband and at times he shows how much he cares with small but significant gestures. It’s a no-fluff love story typical of those people who are hardened by life.
This family picture is torn apart in the third and final part of the novella. The cause? The Spanish Civil War which erupted in 1936. Jaume, known as a leftist revolutionary, is caught and Conxa and her daughters are taken to prison, together with the wives of other leftists. Once she’s released and allowed to go back home, Conxa’s life will never be the same again. In fact, the last chapters seem to pass like a breeze and soon we see Conxa far into middle age, her children all married and settled. In her last years, Conxa is riddled once again by fears. She also starts questioning her utility, as she becomes too old to work on the land and she’s forced to move to the city of Barcelona to stay with her married son.
The titular metaphor, like a stone in a landslide, features prominently in those chapters where Conxa is imprisoned:
I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days…
This is Conxa’s whole life. She is rather the passive kind, but that doesn’t mean that she remains unaffected by what happens to her or around her. She’s practically shoved into new situations, but in the end, the result is her growth, her maturity, her knowledge, and her acceptance of the life she’s been given. I can’t help but compare her to Izolda from another Peirene book I read recently, the Polish novel Chasing the King of Hearts. Izolda was always proactive and on the go, trying to save herself and her husband during WWII. Conxa is the opposite, she’s no heroine. But that doesn’t mean she’s less worthy.
I agree with what Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, said about Conxa’s narrative voice and why she fell in love with it: it’s stoic, timeless, down-to-earth, and humanly contradictory. Conxa is shy, quiet and often seems lost in the vastity of this harsh life. Despite being firmly rooted in the real, practical world – as it is required from her as a land-working family woman – she also still relies on her ability to dream. And she never seems to be able to voice out her feelings. In fact, she repeatedly mentions a “knot in the throat”, which I found extremely relatable:
A knot forms in your throat, causing such a strong pain but you swallow and swallow, until slowly you untangle the knot and you’re left with the skein. A fragment of sorrow, knot and all, has gone down directly to your stomach.
Therefore, I really liked this novella primarily because of Conxa’s voice and character. A woman doesn’t need to be a heroine to show perseverance. Conxa is the epitome of the woman with a rich inner world that cannot be let out into the outer, real world. There’s a clash between the character and reality which allows for growth but also gives way to resignation. This resignation is perfectly expressed in the very last chapter, as Conxa describes city life in Barcelona, her “last step before the cemetery”.
It might not be the happiest of stories but I do highly recommend Stone in a Landslide. The narrative flows easily and Conxa’s voice is clear and to the point. It is partly a coming-of-age story, partly a romance, partly a war story, hence it can appeal to a wide variety of readers. It is not aimed just at women, even though it describes a woman’s life and thoughts. Beyond that intimate female world, this novella also studies life and characters in mountain villages, which are at crossroads between the traditional and the modern world.