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.

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

I hate picking up an edition of a book made to capitalize on the release of a movie version. It shouldn’t matter, but I end up looking at the recognizable actors and such on the cover and get an impression of them instead of the book itself. I had that problem when I looked at Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. My copy had Glenn Close and Keith Carradine on the cover and mentioned how it was now “a riveting CBS drama on the Hallmark Hall of Fame.” I tried not to think about that and let it color my impressions instead of taking the book as it was, but I have no way of knowing how successful I was. I just wish I’d gotten a non-movie related copy of the book instead.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Sandra Cisneros and 5th for Kathryn Harrison)

Stones for Ibarra concerns Americans Sara and Richard Everton who have done borrowed everything they could to come to a small Mexican village and restart a copper mine long ago abandoned by Richard’s grandfather. It’s a strange, inexplicable move. Of course, there is some pleasant clash between the couple and the villagers. Both seem to respect each other, but they will never ultimately understand each other:

The Acostas reported back to the village. “The señora cooks food from cans over a gasoline fire. It must be very expensive. While she stirs the pot, the señor is in the kitchen. A man in the kitchen and not to eat. He is pouring from a whiskey bottle into glasses. He adds a thimble of Tehuacán water and gives one glass to the señora. They lift their glasses and laugh. We saw it ourselves,” said Remedios. “The señora wearing her shirt inside her ranchero pants instead of loose outside, decently covering that part of her. And drinking alcohol as she cooks, while the señor, whose father was born in that house, sits on the table and lets his long legs swing.”

Though the village is somewhat quiet. It is still a harsh place to live:

It was now that the Palacio brothers entered the Copa de Oro and walked up to the bar. They worked in the concentrating mill of the Malagueña mine and carried with them like an aura the bitter smell of cyanide. José Reyes first approached Tomás, then Julián. He asked for a small loan of money to be repaid tomorrow and was refused. When the Palacio brothers tried to turn away, he held them back and said, “I am not as rich as you are with a week’s salary in your pockets.” When they refused a second time, José pulled from the wide belt under his denim jacket the machete he had used to strip twigs from the firewood and, as if they had attacked him, cut Tomás in the neck and Julián in the stomach. Then José Reyes was outside in the street, running faster than one so besotted should run, with thirty meters between him and those who came after. There were five who followed him, and two were Palacio cousins and one a Palacio son.

Of course, that harshness doesn’t seem to affect the couple much. Instead, is a hidden illness discovered after the couple arrives that puts definite boundaries on their time there. Leukemia. It seems strangely separate, evidencing both a common fate with those of the Ibarra village and a permanent separateness.

The book just kind of seems to go on in this way. Quietly for the most part.

There is a beautiful melancholy in Stones for Ibarra. Cultures clash, respecting but never quite understanding each other. The environment is harsh as the prose is sparse, but that seems almost secondary to the real danger. Fate is still fate, though, regardless of where it comes from.

Stones for Ibarra reminds me of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop in some ways, though it is quite different in others. Perhaps it was just the lonely southwest of the past, but perhaps it is more than that. Similar language maybe. Faith would definitely be different, since the Everton aren’t believers. Maybe Stones for Ibarra isn’t so similar and I just felt it was. I don’t know.

Regardless, I enjoyed Stones for Ibarra…though I found it’s goodness to be a quiet one. Unassuming. Take that for what you will.

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Hughes Galeano

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Hughes Galeano is an odd book to review. Not that the book is particularly bizarre, though it does have its moments. I more mean that the nature of the book is difficult to pin down, being a literary collage and all, and thus is a little trickier to discuss.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Sandra Cisneros.)

So, what is a literary collage? I didn’t find much about that in any of the discussion of The Book of Embraces that I had seen, but it is fairly self-evident. Rather than following an overall narrative, the book is made up of a collection of different kind of fragments.

We have some fable-like stories:

            A man from the town of Neguá, on the coast of Columbia, could climb into the sky.

            On his return, he described his trip. He told how he had contemplated human life on his. He said we are a sea of tiny flames.

There are also political discussions:

At the end of 1987, Héctor Abad Gómez reported that a man’s life was worth no more than eight dollars. When his article was published in a Medelliín daily, he had already been assassinated. Héctor Abad Gómez was president of the Commission on Human Rights.

as  well as poetry:

Bankruptcies are socialized while profits are privatized.

Money is freer than people are.

People are at the service of things.

Nor is this all. There are autobiographical slices, history, and even some of the author’s wife’s dreams:

Helena dreamed she was trying to close her suitcase and couldn’t, and she pushed down on it with both hands and knelt on it an sat on top of it and stood on top of it, and it wouldn’t budge. Mysteries and belongings gushed from the suitcase that wouldn’t close.

All these different kinds of fragments are all woven together into the larger whole that is The Book of Embraces. Some are tragic, some full of wonder. Some are so quietly beautiful as to be tiny little marvels.

But…what does it all add up to? These pieces aren’t just jammed together. The parts do add up to a greater sum; it is just a little more difficult to pin down exactly what that greater sum is.

I’ve seen some commentators say that the elements The Book of Embraces combine to create a portrait of Galeano’s mind. Perhaps that is the case. On the other hand, perhaps it is a microcosm of what it is to live in the places and times Galeano experienced. To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Frankly, I’m not even sure that it really matters.

After all, whatever these extremely varied pieces exactly add up to, it is a beautiful thing to read. The fables like elements bring softness to the accounts of brutality. At the same, the reportage of the atrocities of Latin American dictatorships contributes a serious context to the fables. The pieces are wildly different, but they function together in an interesting way. Really, this isn’t something that should be explained anyway. You should read The Book of Embraces yourself and see firsthand what it all adds up to.