Review - Stone in a Landslide

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, trans. Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchel.

Sometimes the best stories are those simply told. Maria Barbal's enchanting novella was first published in 1985 and is now considered a Catalan classic. It follows the fortunes of Conxa, who at the tender age of 13 is sent to work for her aunt and uncle. It's the beginning of the 20th century and life is hard in the rural villages of Catalonia. The hours spent in the fields are long and the pleasures few.

At the local market, Conxa meets and falls in love with Jaume, a blacksmith's son who has forsaken the land to work in building and carpentry. They marry and have three children but the Spanish Civil War – at first a distant conflict – eventually arrives on their doorstep and rips their lives apart.

Barbal's focus is the devastating effect of the war on ordinary peasants who are inadvertently caught up in the atrocities and tit-for-tat massacres that saw neighbours and friends pitted against one another. Her evocation of the conflict, expressed through Conxa's incomprehension and bewilderment, is particularly poignant.

First Jaume, who had joined the Republican Left, is taken away at dawn, and then Conxa and her daughters are imprisoned. Suddenly Conxa finds herself cast adrift, "like a stone after a landslide". Just as the war is etched on the collective Spanish consciousness, the avalanche of horrors forced on Conxa disturbs her usual placidity and is to mark her for the rest of her life.

When Conxa is forced to leave the beloved landscape of her youth, rural poverty is superseded by urban pallor. In the book's final pages, the deliberately understated tone of Conxa's narrative voice takes on a lyrical quality in her descriptions of a city where "everything is at a set time". Barcelona "is having the sky far away and the stars trembling. It is a damp sky and very heavy rain... It is losing the memory of the sound of the animals at home as you look at dogs chained at dusk, wordless noise and a thick silence full of memories."

Thanks to Peirene Press, a small independent publisher, Stone in a Landslide has been translated into English, courtesy of Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell, for the first time. It is a heartfelt lament for those rural poor transformed over the last century into a poorer urban class.

Originally published in the Independent 18th June 2010