In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

The civilian war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In Diamond SquareOne evening in the early 1930s in Barcelona, young, motherless and naive Natalia dances with a young man at a fiesta in Diamond Square. They fall in love, though it seems an unequal love, more as if Natalia has fallen under Joe’s ultra-masculine power. They marry and have children, but the political situation is deteriorating and soon the nation will be plunged into civil war…

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life, before, during and after the war. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited.

The first section shows us Natalia’s marriage before the war. Initially overwhelmed by her rather bullying husband, we see her grow until they gradually become a more equal partnership, although still in a society that is very much a patriarchal one. She becomes a mother, and we see the traditions of the women around the subject of childbirth. Joe, a carpenter, decides to build a pigeon loft on the roof, and Pidgey, as he calls Natalia, soon finds her home full of pigeons who, like her children, seem to become solely her responsibility. Then war comes, and Joe – partly because he believes in it and partly because his business is failing – gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, leaving Natalia, the children and the pigeons to fend for themselves in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before.

SCW LogoBook 5

I don’t want to give too much of the story away, so I’ll leave you to find out what happens to Natalia and Joe for yourself (which reminds me, do NOT read the prologue before you read the book, since it’s really an introduction explaining why the author wrote it and reveals far too much about how Natalia’s story works out). The rather undramatic way the story is told works very well at allowing the tragedies inflicted on civilian populations during civil war to come through with a real feeling of truth and integrity. We see the random violence carried out by both sides, often on nothing more than suspicion – a man may have been thought to do business with the “other side” and this will be reason enough for him and his family to be terrorised and worse. We see how this gradually forces people on both sides more and more to the extremes, each seeing the other side as evil. And we see how impossible it is in this broken society for a woman to earn enough to keep her children above the starvation line. The tragedy is quiet here, but it is as devastating to the civilians as the guns and bombs are to the fighters.

We didn’t get up on Sundays so as not to be so hungry. And we took the kid to a [refugee] camp in a lorry Julie sent our way after I’d done a lot of persuading. But he knew he was being lied to. He knew better than I did that it was a lie and I was the liar. And we talked about sending him to a camp, before we actually did, and he’d look down and clam up, as if we grown-ups didn’t exist. Mrs Enriqueta promised she’d visit him. I told him I’d go every Sunday. The lorry left Barcelona with us in the back and a cardboard suitcase held together by a piece of string, and it turned down the white road that led to the lie.

And in the last section, we see the aftermath – the war over, but the impact on those involved reverberating through the following years. For some there is a future, but only when they can come to terms with what they had to do to survive.

Although, or perhaps because, Pidgey is an unremarkable woman who simply wants to be a wife and mother, I found myself fully absorbed in her story. Rodoreda shows how strong and resilient people have to be just to survive when society fractures and neighbour comes to mistrust neighbour. For little, ordinary, unheroic Pidgey, it may be too much to ask – as she nears the point of desperation, my heart broke for her and for all those civilians caught up in wars not of their own making.

Merce Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda

Well translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush, the book is quite short but packed full of power and emotion. There is no need to know anything about the Spanish Civil War in order to appreciate the book. It could, in a sense, be any civil war. However, it gives a great insight into the lives of women in Barcelona at this point in time, and adds some real depth to an aspect that is often somewhat overlooked in formal histories of the period – the impact of the war on non-aligned non-participants. Natalia didn’t care whether the Communists or the Fascists won, so long as whoever did provided bread for her children.

The sections set before and during the war are excellent but for me the final section, after the war, is a little too dragged out. It is an interesting picture, though, of the world resettling like a shaken kaleidoscope into a new pattern, not entirely dissimilar to the old, leaving unspoken the question of what it was all for – did anyone win? I will remember Natalia’s story.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

35 thoughts on “In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

    • Yes, sadly it’s rare for a war to make anything better, especially civil wars. I thought this was a really interesting approach. The non-involved are usually completely overlooked in both history and fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I hate these intros and prologues that give away the plot! Yes, I thought this was an interesting approach – most fiction is usually about the people who are involved rather than the ones who’re just left to live through something they don’t care about.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Lovely to see you back, FictionFan! This novel takes an approach I really like: show a big event through the lives of the people who live through it. Through those individual stories, we can really see what the war was like, how it impacted everyone, etc. And the story itself does sound really interesting. It’s good to hear Natalia grows as the story goes on, too. To me, that’s a mark of a well-drawn character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Margot! I thought Natalia was a great character, and a great way of showing this aspect of wars that often gets overlooked. I suspect that there are always more Natalias than there are people who are keen to fight in any civil war. I actually thought it felt autobiographical, but apparently not – I still think she must have based it on a real life though. It felt too authentic to be entirely fictional.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I suspect this one being written in Catalan kept its readership smallish, although I believe it’s considered a classic in Spain. Glad it’s available to us now in translation!

      Like

  2. I love the sound of this. Rodoreda was very political wasn’t she, so excellent that she can write so well about a women that just wants to feed the family, and I get the impression from your review that she doesn’t belittle her uninterest in the war?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was surprised that she didn’t show much political bias in this one – I’d have been hard put to it to say she seemed in favour of either side over the other based on this. And she certainly didn’t belittle Natalia – it’s an incredibly sympathetic and authentic-feeling account of the plight of those who find themselves between two warring ideologies, neither of which they understand or care about. I definitely want to read more of her now.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How nice to see a new post/review from you! Just a shame that the book doesn’t interest me. (or maybe that’s a good thing for my TBR!) 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Remembering a story” might be one of the better compliments an author can receive! This sounds like an interesting read, especially since the war and politics don’t command center stage. Thanks for another superb review, FF.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Debbie! 😀 Yes, of all the zillions of books I must have read over the years, very few characters stay with me for long, but Natalia has joined that select band! I’m glad my Spanish Civil War challenge led me to meet her…

      Like

  5. This is an interesting perspective, and I see it’s a translation. I always wonder whether translations convey the original feeling that the author was trying to convey. What’s your sense? And it sounds like the prologue should have been an epilogue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s always hard to know, isn’t it? I thought this read very well, and certainly Natalia became real to me so I reckon the translator must have done his job well. The prologue annoyed me – had it been called an introduction I’d have avoided it as I always do till after I’ve read the book, but “prologue” means to me that it should be part of the story rather than the author’s discussion of why she wrote the book…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Living sufficient for one’s needs and with dignity is a goal that is too often unavailable for too many whenever there’s conflict of any kind. This sounds as though it helps underline what we most need through the lives of a few individuals.

    And that thing about introductions: I really believe anything truly revelatory about a piece of fiction should come in an afterword or in notes, not before the novel proper starts. Why is that so difficult for publishers to understand when it comes to asking a scholar or other expert for an accompanying commentary?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I thought it was a really interesting approach. Most histories and novels quite naturally concentrate on the participants in events, but this was a great reminder that many people, perhaps most, are too busy trying to survive to care about which ideology is better than the other.

      I was so annoyed about the prologue. I also avoid intros until after I’ve read the book, but “prologue” to me means part of the story, rather than the author’s discussion on why she wrote the book. It was interesting, but definitely should have been at the end – pah!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I really like the sound of this. I think the stories of people who lived through enormous upheaval, away from the big events but so impacted by them in their daily lives, are fascinating. It’s what we don’t really hear about when we study history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hallo, Madame B! Lovely to hear from you! Yes, I thought this was an interesting approach, to look at the many people, perhaps most, who are just trying to make it from one day to the next and don’t have the time or the interest to decide which ideology is the best. Natalia will be in my mind while I’m reading about republicans and communists and anarchists and fascists – pah! A plague on all their houses!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This seems a grand book: of ‘little people’ swept in larger events which they do not understand or are not interested in but which rip apart their lives. I can totally sympathize with Natalia. i will search for this book. it is good to have you back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Yes, it was an interesting approach – usually books concentrate on the people who actively take part in events, but poor Natalia had no choice and no say in what was happening to her. I hope you enjoy it if you manage to track it down!

      Like

  9. Nice to see you back! And I’m really enjoying reading all your reviews for the Spanish Civil War challenge – this sounds fascinating. Yes, in war fiction generally people who don’t have a particular side are often overlooked, despite the outsize impact that living in a war zone must have on civilians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’m looking forward to getting more into the fiction about the Spanish Civil War now I have a basic grasp of the history, and this was certainly a great one to begin with. Yes, I suspect in most civil wars most people actually hate both sides – it’s always the extremists who want to fight. So it was an interesting angle that probably doesn’t get covered often.

      Like

    • I think you’ll enjoy it, Anca – it really gives a great feel for how tough life was for the civilians. I didn’t know, for instance, that there were camps for children because of the starvation levels. Heart-breaking!

      Like

  10. You’ve won me over with this book, I do want to read it. Both the humanity of the characters and the background setting appeal. Strangely there’s only a large print version of it in the library. This wouldn’t work for me normally, but as it’s a short book, I’ll give it a try sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a surprise success for me. I was expecting far more about politics and the war, but actually it was great to get away from that and see how it affected people who weren’t interested and just wanted to get on with their lives. Natalia became much realer to me than the usual kickass or truly tragic heroine – I imagine there are many, many Natalias in every war…

      Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.