Human Erosion: Stone in a Landslide, a review.

Maria Barbal, is one of the most famous Catalan authors, and that she be a Catalan is pivotal to understanding her work, as its history provides a backdrop to the fictional, retrospective life story of Concepcio (Conxa). Conxa, is born to a rural peasant family in the Pyreenees situated in Catalonia, where nothing is available in abundance, or easily obtainable “These weren’t years of plenty, there were a lot of mouths to feed and not much land, which of course left a hole”. For Conxa and her overcrowded family home, at the age of 13, she goes and lives with her childless aunt Tia. She works, grows up, falls in love, grieves and grows old like any average life in any world. However, written on the cusp of the 20th century and spanning its majority, we know its trajectory and its story.

Stone in a Landslide,  described as a Catalan modern classic, is essentially an allegory of Catalonia through Conxa’s life. The sense of identity strife not for Conxa, but this Catalonia, many people now regard as distinctly Spanish touches on hostile. For Conxa, the woman, emerging out of the Victorian era experiences the typical struggles of identity“what is a farm with a man? What is a house without a woman?”, and when she falls in love she goes from from being Conxa to “Jaume’s Conxa”.

Conxa’s initial life of peasantry is tough but lived with the acceptance and contentment of the predictability of life.  There is Conxa’s continual skepticism about the world and the gradual intrusion of different people grows “ I looked at the land divided into small irregular plots. I thought, even the richest man here is still very poor” and when her cousins come to visit “city people are different”. As she grows out of peasantry she grows out of her innocence and has to acknowledge that this world it is not always a fair one, and maybe the peasantry that she has grown up in, doesn’t automatically mean that she has to accept it however much God’s presence may be.

Like the land, and the lifestyle, Barbal’s prose is sparse, measured and pragmatic. No word is wasted, but it doesn’t steep itself in melodrama. When the civil war is introduced into the story by a letter from the cousins in the city, life is not turned up side down, Instead it is made more arduous, more painful, and almost unbearable but Conxa’s will carries her through. When her husband is  lost in the revolutionary fighting (we presume dead, but we never fully know) ‘everything turned upside down at home’, not in life but the home where is the source and grounding of the civil relationship. The Civil war acts as metaphor for a revolution in how the home is regarded, and the old fashioned archaic values are challenged as Conxa, despite being in in love with her husband is head of a household, something she has never experienced. Conxa later talks of her new home, post-revolutionary period “It was a spring clean i’ll never forget. I didn’t want to leave a corner untouched”. After the the Franco’s regime,  it is also the spring cleaning of her Catalan identity.

The civil war also represents the clash of the Catalan culture with the Spanish. Franco’s fascist regime tried to suppress any kind of Catalan culture; murdering, imprisoning, any kind of Catalan free thinkers, in a brutal repatriation where neighbours and friends were turned against each other. Conxa encounters this in her church, which also leads to her and her people’s earlier downfall “They made us pray in the morning and at night. I didn’t know the prayers in Spanish and I just pretended by moving my lips”. This poignant moment represents the past and present day struggles that Catalan’s still have in distinguishing themselves from Spain.

Towards the end, when Conxa’s children are starting to grow old and fly the nest, she must come to terms with her growing age, and the dawning of being cared for and living in the new big city. Barbal’s prose becomes more lyrical in the closing scenes as Conxa contemplates and comprehends what it means to live in the city “ Barcelona is not knowing anyone. Only the family. And sometimes hearing foreign words spoken. It is losing the memory of the sound of the animals at home as you look at the dogs chained at dusk”. It is difficult to pinpoint year this is, but it is certainly post-war, and in the time of the early excitement of capitalism, the boom of  money moving around the western world, and everybody thinking that they had a chance to succeed in it. Barcelona  we know  now is a tourist hotspot, like London or Paris, it is difficult to spot the Catalans amongst the other nationalities getting their fulfillment of Polaroid shots and Lionel Messi football shirts. Conxa who has lived most of her life in peasantry cannot comprehend this (not Lionel Messi), and her early inclinations of wealth and people from the city come to a head in this final section. Life was happy when Conxa had that innocence before she became aware of the world outside the Pyrenees and before the war. In fact it is worth reading through to get to this end section, so distinct from the rest of it. The reader is carried along by Conxa’s life story, and Barbal succeeds in leaving us as the observer. It is intimate, but not so much that you’re taken away by the intensity of it, which is remarkable considering its length. Barbal’s narrative voice is to thank for that.

This is the first time that the work has been published in English, done by the independent publishing house Peirene Press, devoting their time to small works of European fiction. Stone in a Landslide was first published in 1985 and one has to question why this is the first time we have seen it in England. Well, we don’t have to ask, because we know why – money and marketability. Peirene Press though is doing a remarkable job getting these little known works in England known, and they should hopefully start circulate through the market and gain a reputation.

A short piece of work (Peirene say that it should be read in one sitting, during the time taken to watch a DVD) but a mesmerising one. It is a paean to the homeland, to Catalonia and its troubled history, but it is also a paean to the home and the construction of it, thanks to the woman, Conxa and her indomitable spirit. A life of love and loss, like of many, she is a stone in a landslide.

Stone in Landslide (126 pp)  is published Peirene Press and is available for £8.99. A smaller version of this review is featured on Visit there now to read about other works dedicated to various locations in the world.