“Stone in a Landslide” by Maria Barbal

One of the things I have always loved about a good book is the way it takes you into places and times you’d never otherwise have a chance to experience. This book conveys utterly convincingly the experience of growing up in a small mountain village in early 20th century Catalonia. I really felt as if I was there with Conxa and Jaume and their children and the aunt and uncle.

This is a historical novel that spans several generations and takes in major historical events like the Spanish Civil War. Yet it is only 126 pages. And yet it doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, most of the time is spent embroiled in the details of everyday life, describing the buzzing of flies looking for food, the walnut trees turning green, and exactly how the meadows looked as the characters went picking mushrooms. Births and deaths are skipped over, decades pass, wars and revolutions come and go, but more importantly it’s time to take the animals to pasture and the poplar trees are waving in the wind.

It’s a slightly strange way to tell a story, but it made me realise that memories do really work this way. If I think back over my life, I don’t form an orderly, logical chronology – I see pictures and scenes, some of important events but also some that just happened to lodge in my mind because I was particularly happy or sad at the time, or it was a particularly warm or cold day, etc. There are gaps of years where I can’t remember much at all, and then a particular day I remember in great detail.

That’s pretty much the way this book is put together, and it works very well. It feels like what it is, the remembrances of an old woman looking back on her life, and the accumulation of details allowed me to feel part of the story much more than in many much longer books I’ve read. The passage of time is marked very clearly, and although the story covers a lifetime in 126 pages, the fast-forwarding never feels abrupt.

Conxa’s outlook is very limited. Her husband Jaume is interested in politics and wants to improve things, a chance he thinks he has got with the declaration of the Republic. But Conxa has no interest in these things, or in anything beyond the next village. Even Barcelona seems so far away that it has no meaning for her. She does care deeply about things close to her, though, the family and the house and the farm. It’s the changes that take place in these things, as time moves on and the next generation have different ideas about the lives they want to live, that shock her much more than the wars and political upheavals she lives through.

The title of the book provides a good insight into Conxa’s character. Here’s the context of it:

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 uttered in a moment of extreme stress, when Conxa is in shock. But it also typifies the rest of her life, in which none of the major things that happen are under her control. She lives where she does because her parents sent her there as a child. She wants to marry Jaume, but when her aunt and uncle refuse, the limit of her rebellion is to cry and then be quiet and unhappy until they change their minds. Later on, when she and her children are arrested because of Jaume’s political activities, it is her daughter who finds out information and tries to get them out, while Conxa sits there like the proverbial stone. It’s a fascinating character depiction. It never feels like weakness: Conxa is, in her way, a very strong woman. But because of the way she was brought up, in that place and time, she just doesn’t try to change her fate. Things happen, and she seems to accept them all, good or bad.

I was left wanting more at the end, but in a good way. It wasn’t that anything remained unresolved. The novel had reached a satisfying conclusion, but I still wanted to hear more of Conxa’s voice, more about a fascinating life in a different world. The book is in its 50th edition in Catalan but this is the first English translation, and I would strongly recommend reading it.

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