Unusual first-person narrators are an obsession of mine—voices that jar or unique hybrid POVs—and so it was a pleasure to discover Conxa in Stone in a Landslide (Peirene Press, 2010) by Maria Barbal, and translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell. This is a Catalan novel, originally published in 1985, that begins in the early twentieth century and covers a lifetime.
The story begins when narrator Conxa is 13 years old and sent to live with her aunt in a village a day’s walk from her own. She settles in, works, falls in love and marries, and eventually has children—all against a background, gently described, of a changing region in the years building toward the Spanish Civil War. There are careful timestamps, like the Universal Exposition in Barcelona in 1929, the first uprisings in 1936 and so on and so forth. As the book deals with the personal side of the war, it is also describing a nation in the midst of a modernity crisis, and Barbal weaves the two elements together with a lot of grace.
Conxa has a deceptively straightforward voice and this is where the book really intrigued me. Technically, as a narrator, she is an old woman, and she’s telling the reader her story in retrospect. As fits this approach, there are tones of nostalgia in certain passages and foreshadowing in others for elements to come that are harder for her to relate. But she doesn’t play much with the voice of a “wise old woman” or even, more simply, with the reality of what might be known and understood in hindsight, and this creates a neat effect, in that we experience Conxa’s grappling with the changes around her—both personal and political—as she does, simply and honestly.
In some sense, Barbal gives Conxa a kind of naivety—to put it another way, you could describe her as simple, unassuming—and she only tempers this when we reach the end of her life. At first I struggled with this a little, because I wondered at the truth of it, wondered whether Conxa might have been a stereotype of a “woman from a small village” at that time in Catalan history. (Stone in a Landslide was Barbal’s first novel, and although she’s a Barcelona-based writer, this novel is, more than others it seems, centered on the rural region where she grew up). As Conxa moved further through her story, though, I stopped feeling this way completely, and felt more that Barbal was giving her character (and the reader) the space to experience what must have been a massive cultural upheaval without a retrospective agenda. Conxa is somehow both naïve and incredibly realistic, and while she may not be as brave as others, and spends more time avoiding change and politics, she lives her experiences fully—the good and the bad—and relates both with the same honest emotion that I ultimately found really compelling.
It is a quiet book in many ways, but I never mean that negatively. It felt in places like a gentle documentary, and yet I turned each page with real interest to see how Conxa’s life would turn out. The ending shifts tone—more poetic, and a voice that is hard-earned at this point—and this was extremely moving.
Quick note for Women in Translation month: from what I can see, Barbal has eleven novels, and Stone in a Landslide is the only one so far available in English translation. I hope there are more planned as one of my laments about so little ‘literature-in-translation’ available in English is that it is often hard to follow a writer’s evolution over time, and selfishly, I find this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of reading and discovering new writers. How have they changed, what do they read like twenty years into their careers?