rev. of Camellia Street by Merce Rodoreda, trans. by David H. Rosenthal

Issue #62
Winter 1993-94

Camellia Street 
A novel by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by David H. Rosenthal. Graywolf Press, $20.00 cloth. Reviewed by James Carroll.

“They abandoned me on Camellia Street, in front of a garden gate, and the night watchman found me early the next morning.”

So begins
Camellia Street, a small masterpiece of fiction by Mercè Rodoreda, the Catalan novelist who died of cancer a decade ago.
Camellia Street was first published in 1966 in the Catalan language. This new Graywolf edition, exquisitely translated by David H. Rosenthal, should introduce American readers to this important writer’s work and, for that matter, to its meaning in the context of Catalan politics.

Rodoreda was one of many noted writers and artists driven from Spain after the defeat of the Republic in 1939. Her language was suppressed by Franco. Carol Gilligan writes of the voicelessness against which women struggle, but here was a woman for whom voicelessness was compounded by languagelessness. She published nothing for twenty years. But then in 1959 her stories and novels began to appear again. In Rodoreda, the silenced Catalan people especially women found a voice.
Camellia Street, a simple, stark story about one woman’s struggle on the streets of Barcelona, was read as a manifesto of resistance and survival. When Mercè Rodoreda returned to her homeland in 1979, it was as a literary hero.

As the opening sentence implies,
Camellia Street is about the effect on a life of beginning as one abandoned. Cecilia C., as she is called, grows up to be a grotto-eyed streetwalker, then a wily kept woman who learns to use the men who use her. Her surfaces become as hard as her secret longing is pointed. She is forever at the mercy of a desire she cannot name.

Referring to the statues she collects, Cecilia says, “I kept buying angels and having them delivered to my house. I had tall and short ones, with curls and straight hair, with goblets, palm branches and grapes in their hands. . . . But they were silent, stiff, worm-eaten, earth-bound.”

“I fell in love with the wall facing my bed,” Cecilia says another time. And in answer to her long-lost foster father’s question, “What have you done with your life,” Cecilia muses, “I was about to tell him I’d spent it searching for lost things and burying dead loves, but I didn’t say anything, and acted like I hadn’t heard him.”

Rodoreda’s novel is written in the form of Cecilia’s utterly unembellished, completely convincing stream of consciousness. The wall between the reader and what’s read between oneself and Cecilia falls away, and it is only on reflection that the full achievement of this novel can be grasped. The work renders, first, the feeling of a woman abandoned by her parents, her lovers, and her miscarried children; second, it renders the plight of a people abandoned by the century; and third, most magnificently, it renders the basic experience of every human being that we are all here on the earth as abandoned ones, that our lives are a long and futile search for “lost things.”

In the face of the essential agony of the human condition, our books tell us, we can do only one of two things: offer the feeling up in prayer, or tell stories about it. Mercè Rodoreda, with
Camellia Street, reminds us that even if prayer seems to have failed, stories have not.

James Carroll is the author of eight novels, most recently Memorial Bridge.
His new novel, The City Below,
will be published in April 1994 by Houghton Mifflin. He teaches writing at Emerson College.