Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, tr. from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

Stone  in a LandslideThis is the second in the Female Voices: Inner Realities series from Peirene Press.

Publisher, Mieke Ziervogel introduces each of their books with one or two sentences in extra-large font on the second page and it’s a page that you find yourself looking forward to whenever you pick up one of their books.

She shares what attracted the team to selecting that title as one of the Peirene books to translate into English and share with readers.

For Stone in a Landslide, she had this to say:

“I fell in love with Conxa’s narrative voice, its stoic calmness and the complete lack of anger and bitterness. It’s a timeless voice, down to earth and full of human contradictory nuances. It’s the expression of someone who searches for understanding in a changing world but senses that ultimately there may be no such thing.”

We meet Conxa as a 13-year-old girl living in the Catalan Pyrenees, Spain at the beginning of the last century, though she narrates the story from the other end of her life, reflecting back on her journey as an old woman.

One of six children, the opening lines tell us how she came to live with her childless aunt and uncle, leaving her family, home, village and mountain behind at such a tender age.

“Anyone could see that there were a lot of us at home. Someone had to go. I was the fifth of six children – Mother used to say I was there because God had wanted me to be there and you have to take what He sends you. The eldest was Maria, she, more than Mother, ran the house.  Josep was the son and heir and Joan was going into the church. We three youngest were told a hundred times that we were more of a burden than a blessing….So it was decided that I, who was level-headed and even-tempered, would be sent to help my mother’s sister, Tia.”

LandslideShe remembers going to school and how fortunate she was to be able to, on account of having older sisters who stayed home to do the work. Three winters she went to school, until she joined the family of her aunt and uncle and then had to help them with the outdoor work.

In short chapters of around two pages, we observe the change in Conxa’s life, her new duties, how people perceive her initially as an outsider and how that perception begins to change, she has become an heir to land thus her marriage prospects have increased. She suffers silently from being separated from her family, but in time accepts her new role and life.

“Time passed and no one spoke of home. Of my family. In five years I had seen Mother and Maria only once, when they came for the Festa Major during my first year at Pallarès….My aunt and uncle said nothing about going back and I didn’t dare mention it. Was I happy there? I had no idea. I’d lived with my heart in my mouth a bit, worried about what they might throw back in my face. Maybe the poverty of my family…But I’d got used to them and their way of doing things. And it’s true, the thought of leaving Pallarès to return to Ermita became stranger every day.”

We learn through Conxa’s experiences how people were perceived, eldest sons were destined to be the heir, a second son may have had to learn a trade and were therefore seen as lesser prospects. Ownership of land accrued status, men who earned a wage were less desirable.

“They knew him to be hard-working and quick-witted but, because of the nature of his work, he appeared to be a drifter and freer than most men, who only looked at the ground to work it or the sky to figure out what the weather will bring. I realised that they saw him as an outsider, someone who’d managed to earn himself a living, but this had more or less divided him from his family.”

Falling in love with a tradesman is about as rebellious as Conxa gets, her aunt and uncle soon realise that Jaume is a good match, and as with her life as the adopted daughter Conxa becomes as accepting of her new circumstances in her life with Jaume, who must by necessity travel a lot for his work.  He is more outspoken and for this Conxa will experience hardship as the Spanish Civil War impacts even the quietest villages.

Stone in a Landslide is such an apt metaphor for Conxa and yet she was not like the others. She doesn’t complain, she loves genuinely, she accepts her circumstances and only at the end when she is physically removed from her natural surrounding does she come close to realising how much a part of that landscape she is as a person. She coped with many changes, from daughter to adopted daughter, lover, mother within her natural environment, but the final move puts her somewhere beyond reach, beyond comprehension of how to be who she really is.

“Perhaps I had turned into a living stone, or it was just that I had never known how to rebel…. I felt that I was going to need to be strong, but I had no idea why.”

Another excellent addition to the collection and discovery of another wonderful writer.

Maria Barbal, born in 1949, is considered the most influential living Catalan author. The clarity with which she presents human relations and the passage of time has earned her critical acclaim and a wide readership. She lives in Barcelona.

Next Up: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Deluis.

Female Voice Inner Realities