The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda

(Dave here again. Kim will be back for the next two weeks.)

One of the main reasons I agreed when Kim came up with the idea to do this blog was to find books that I should have read and for whatever reason didn’t know about. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to reads books I’ve known about but never actually sat down to read, but often I come across something wonderful that I simply had never heard of. My reading is definitely better for doing this blog and The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda is definitely an example of that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Sandra Cisneros)

The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda centers on Natalia, a woman who starts as a young counter clerk in a pastry shop out the time just before the Spanish civil war. The back of the book describes her as naïve, but she didn’t strike me as that way. Almost more passive, accepting life as it comes along except when she occasionally breaks. She’s swept up by the handsome and impulsive furniture carpenter Quimet, who though well intended is somewhat of a childish bully. He even insists on calling her Colometa, his own pet name, despite her initial protests:

And he said by the end of the year I’d be his wife and I hadn’t even looked at him yet and I looked him over and then he said, “Don’t look at me like that or they’ll have to pick me up off the ground,” and when I told him he had eyes like a monkey he started laughing. The waistband was like a knife in my skin and the musicians “TararIrarrarI!” And I couldn’t see Julieta anywhere. She’d disappeared. And me with those eyes in front of me that wouldn’t go away, as if the whole world had become those eyes and there was no way to escape them. And the night moving forward with its chariots of stars and the festival going on and the fruitbasket and the girl with the fruitbasket, all in blue, whirling around….My mother in the Saint Gervasi Cemetery and me in the Placa del Diamant….”You sell sweet things? Honey and jam…” And the musicians, tired, putting things in their cases and taking them out again because someone had tipped them to play a waltz and everyone spinning around like tops. When the waltz ended people started to leave. I said I’d lost Julieta and he said he’d lost Cintet and that when we were alone and everyone shut up in their houses and the streets empty we’d dance a waltz on tiptoe in the Placa del Diamant…round and round…He called me Colometa, his little dove. I looked at him very annoyed and said my name was Natalia and when I said my name was Natalia he kept laughing and said I could have only one name: Colometa. That was when I started running with him behind me: “Don’t get scared…listen, you can’t walk through the streets all alone, you’ll get robbed….” and he grabbed my arm and stopped me. “Don’t you see you’ll get robbed, Colometa?” And my mother dead and me caught in my tracks and that waistband pinching, pinching, like I was tied with a wire to a bunch of asparagus.

She does marry him. They get an apartment he makes her help pay for and makes her do much of the work to prepare. This carries through the births of her children as he starts to keep doves, conning her into working herself to death caring for the children, minding the doves that even fill part of the house, and working again outside their home. He dreams childishly, and indulges in pretend sickness to sometimes get out of work himself.

But then the civil war comes. The doves all die or fly away (though even before the war she did snap at some point and start killing them in the eggs herself). Eventually Quimet is gone and Natalia is destitute with her starving children. Backed as far as she can go, she decides she has no choice but to kill herself and her children by pouring hydrochloric acid down all their throats….but then:

Someone called out to me and I turned around and it was the grocer and he came up behind me and when I turned around I thought of that woman who’d been changed to salt. And I thought the grocer was going to say he’d given me bleach instead of acid and I don’t know what I thought. He asked if I’d mind coming back with him to his store. That he was sorry to bother me but would I mind coming back with him to his store. And we went into the stores and there was no one there and he asked me if I’d like to keep house for him, that he’d known me for a while and that the woman who’d been working for him had stopped because she was too old and got tired….And then someone came in and he said, “I’ll be right with you,” and he was standing in front of me waiting for an answer. And since I didn’t say anything he asked me if I already had a job and couldn’t leave it and I shook my head and said I didn’t know what to do. He said if I didn’t have a job he had a nice little apartment and it wouldn’t be much work and he already knew I was reliable. I nodded my head and he said, “Start tomorrow,” and he went inside and got two cans of food and nervously stuck them in my basket along with a little bag of something. And he said I could start work tomorrow at nine. And without realizing what I was doing I took the bottle of acid out of my basket and carefully placed it on top of the counter. And I went out without a word. And when I got home, I—who’d always had a touch time crying—burst into tears like it was the simplest thing in the world.

I won’t say any more. I’ve probably said too much already.

There is a soft hardness about The Time of the Doves that I absolutely loved. The writing comes across with a pleasant simplicity, but it is really more elegant craftsmanship that makes nothing about its earthy beauty ornamented or bejeweled, because you can’t see the seams. The introduction to the book talks specifically about the stream of consciousness style, but though I can see that when I stop and look for it (as I’m sure you can if you go back to the bits above) it’s so plainly and seamlessly done that I honestly didn’t notice while reading. The story just flowed right along.

The Time of the Doves speaks softly for the most part, but I doubt a reader could mistake that for a lack of power. It has power in spades.

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