Book Review | Stone in a Landslide

This short but chronologically sprawling book – first published in 1985 but translated to English only recently – by one of the brightest stars of Catalan literature impresses Rose Lapira with its vivid depiction of a small community.

Maria Barbal’s slim novel covers a long span of time, from the early 20th century to the present, as it narrates the life of a simple rural woman.
Maria Barbal’s slim novel covers a long span of time, from the early 20th century to the present, as it narrates the life of a simple rural woman.

I confess that I have a predilection for small books. Often they are more powerful in conveying ideas than sprawling novels. Their very conciseness gives them an intensity and depth that can get lost in the grand sweep of novels that are structured in a more complex manner.

Recently, I discovered a small British publishing house, Peirene Press, which specialises in very short works by contemporary European authors in English translation.

Stone in a Landslide, written by Maria Barbal, was first published in Catalan in 1985.  Now, for the first time, it has been translated in English by Laura McGloughun and Paul Mitchell, and published by Peirene Press.

It is interesting to note that the translation was supported by a grant from the Institut Ramon Llull, which promotes Catalan language and culture internationally, in all its variations of expression. It is named after Ramon Llull, 13th century mystic and philosopher, who is acknowledged to be the first great multi-faceted literary author in the history of Catalan literature.

This is the first time that I got to know about Maria Barbal, but she is considered to be one of the most influential living Catalan authors, who won numerous awards for her literary work, including the Critics's Prize, the National Prize for Literature, the Serra d'Or, and the highest Catalonian award: the Creu de Sant Jordi.

Maria Barbal spent her childhood in the mountainous area of Pallares and her early books describe this rural universe. Stone in a Landslide narrates the life of a young girl from the age of 13, living in a small mountain village in the Pyrenees, to her old age in Barcelona.

In just 126 pages, the book covers a long span of time, from the early 20th century to the present, as it narrates the life of a simple rural woman: a hard working life, marriage, motherhood, and the tragic changes that take place with the Spanish Civil War.

The opening lines set the tone of the novella: 'Anyone could see that there were a lot of us at home. Some had to go. I was the fifth of six children... so it was decided that I, who was level-headed and even-tempered, would be sent to help my mother's sister Tia.'

So Conxa moves reluctantly to her aunt's house in another village, where she does her best to adapt to her new surroundings.

It is the story of an uprooting, of marriage and war, told in a gentle voice by a woman, who is now 80 years old, and is living in Barcelona with her son's family. 

Conxa has very limited choices, but she has the wisdom and courage to make the best of her choices.  She goes through life stoically and with tenacity, as she sees the rapid changes after the war, which will bring the end of her life as she knows it. She accepts the forces of change. Like a 'stone in a landslide' she is carried along by events which are too big for her. Kept in prison with her daughters, she says '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...'

After the war, life in the mountain villages could not remain the same. The women, who are the central characters around which village life revolves, are the ones who are left to pick up the pieces. Entire villages are deserted as country people migrate to urban areas.  When her husband is killed and her daughters leave the family home, Conxa accepts that she has to move to Barcelona.

The author reserves some of the finest lines in the book to describe the way the city is seen by an old, peasant woman. The book ends with this sentence: 'Barcelona, for me, is something very beautiful. It is the last step before the cemetery'. It will be the final uprooting for Conxa!

This reflects the sadness of an old woman reminiscing about a past, which is gone forever, but Conxa has also known love and joy, and laughter and dancing. She is a strong woman and can face the new challenges as she did before, with resignation but also with courage.

At times books are judged by how many pages they have. Stone in a Landslide is a small but rewarding read. It has a tightly controlled structure which leads one directly into the story, without any introduction, and which can be read in one sitting. It is also a highly informative read, and in just 126 pages, one can learn much about a place and its people who had to live through very difficult times.