In the space of 126 pages, Maria Barbel captures a lifetime. One that encompasses happiness and sorrow, love and loss played out against the darkening clouds of the Spanish Civil War.
It’s a novel about 13-year-old Conxa who learns at this early age that she is “more of a burden than a blessing”. There are too many mouths to feed in a family of six children so she, as the fifth and most level-headed and even tempered child, is sent to live and work at her Aunt Tia’s farm. The girl has never been outside her village before but with a bundle of clothes under her arm, she’s walked over the mountain to her new home, unsure when she’d see her parents and siblings again.
Her new home is a disorientating experience. She’s used to a village of just a few houses, now she lives in a town. Her uncle is the silent type; her aunt a “fiery character who expected to be obeyed, But they also show love and affection that enables Conxa to overcome her homesickness.
I closed my eyes and those first days of my new life seemed very far away: the nights I cried myself to sleep remembering each and every person from home, the times I would wake with a start, and the anxiety that didn’t leave me all day. How quickly I got used to such a great change! But if I counted it up, I’d already been away for half a year. And now I felt, not fully, but almost as if I’d been born in Tia’s house.
Time passes. The 1920s become the 1930s. Conxa falls in love, marries Jaume and becomes the mother of three children. Theirs is a settled, secluded life where the rhythms of farming and the traditions of a Pyrenean community are seldom interrupted. The annual summer visit by cousins from Barcelona is one of the few occasions when the outside world intrudes.
Until the spectre of the Spanish Civil War looms and Jaume is taken away from his family and home. Conxa understands little about the reasons for the conflict but she understands only that it has ripped the heart out of her life. Years later, Conxa reluctantly moves away from the mountains to live in Barcelona. Now, as an old woman, she begins to tell her life story.
The plot of Stone In A Landslide might sound simple but Barbal’s writing gives the book a tremendous depth of emotion. With broad, unhurried strokes, we’re drawn into the quiet gentle life of a peasant girl, lulled by descriptions of the changing seasons as Conxa works in the fields and delights in village celebrations or excursions with a friend.
We left at daybreak and at the beginning we were as excited as little girls because finally we had enough time to talk to each other properly. When the going got steep, though, we held our tongues to save our breath. I liked this outing. I was in the meadows, following the darker grass of the tracks thinking about nothing except finding a big patch of mushrooms and filling my basket. The walk was hard but, after going up so far, it was easy enough to walk down again. From where we were we could see all the villages as if they were close by, with the black slates of the roofs and the occasional plume of smoke revealing signs of life. We stopped at the top to eat, red-faced and with a light wind on our necks, before we started the painstaking search for mushrooms.
This portrayal of life’s simple pleasures makes the depiction of Conxa’s grief when Jaume is taken from her, all the more powerful. Murial Barbal shows a woman numbed, facing a future when she believes she will never again feel joy or pleasure.
Yet life goes on and one day she suddenly realises that she has grown old. It’s a moment of realisation accompanied by a calm acceptance that the body and the mind may wish for different things: “It’s not we who decide how long we live. We can’t say “i’ve had enough, I’m off now’ or’ I’m happy now, I want to live longer.”
When the book ends we’re left with a picture of a woman in a small, sunless room in Barcelona thinking back to the simple but joyful life destroyed by forces she could not comprehend. Her life is marked with sorrow yet she has accepted her loss with dignity and found a form of solace through her grandchildren.
Stone In A Landslide is an exquisitely moving tale that will linger long in the memory.
Stone In A Landslide by Maria Barbel: Footnotes
Maria Barbal was born in 1949 in the region of Pallars Jussà, Catalonia, moving to Barcelona in the 1960’s to attend the University of Barcelona. She’s won numerous awards including the Joaquim Ruyra prize for Pedra de tartera (Stone In A Landslide) and the National Catalan Literature Prize in 1993 for “Càmfora”. She currently lives in Barcelona
Stone In A Landslide was published originally in Catalan in 2008. Periene Press published a translation by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell in 2010. It was part of their first series called “Female Voice” which comprised three books about women who live inside their own heads and clash with outside reality:
Stone In A Landslide was one of the books I read for 20booksofsummer 2021 but never got around to reviewing. NovellasinNovember has given me the nudge to get this done. I’m counting it as book number 17 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.