Adrià Guinart, the protagonist of Mercè Rodoreda’s Catalan-language novel War, So Much War, goes to battle on a whim. Early in the novel Guinart says: “Ever since the war began, Rosend—the junkman’s son, two years my senior—had not stopped talking about it. Why don’t you come with me?”
So Guinart follows his comrade, setting in motion Rodoreda’s unconventional novel about war. Rodoreda does not focus directly on the overt actions of war: there are no battles, few soldiers, and none of the common literary themes we associate with war novels. Rather than show the immediate manifestation of war, Rodoreda instead illuminates the unfathomable devastation of war on the human body, mind, and soul.
For example, in chapter four Adrià Guinart becomes separated from his comrades during their search for the front lines. In the woods, he comes across “[a] large sack suspended from a tree . . . swinging back and forth, and from it emerged the head of a man with a straight, taut rope behind it.” Guinart calls him “the hanged man,” and like all the characters Guinart meets during his journey, he has a story of loss to tell. The hanged man explains how he had been involved in a bad love affair, and in order to save his soul, he joined the war: “[But] the war finished me. Emptied me of everything, surrounded me with death and blood . . . I died some time ago.” The hanged man grows angry that Guinart cuts him down, so they struggle, and finally, the hanged man falls and goes silent, dying once more.
The strange half-life of the hanged man is one of many encounters Guinart has with characters caught in the nexus of fantasy, reality, and defective memory. Guinart wanders from farm to farm, sleeps outdoors, meets his comrades only to lose them again, and all the while, people tell him fantastic stories of loss and bewilderment. All these tales twist and distort the reader’s expectations. They even attempt, and often succeed, to shatter the solid dichotomy between life and death.
In a chapter titled “The Girl on the Beach,” Guinart finds himself walking in the dark, looking for chicken coops or fruit-laden trees to satisfy his hunger. A girl suddenly takes him by the arm and asks: “Why are you looking at me?” Her face is pale and “partially covered by a cascade of hair.” A butterfly “drew nearer and nestled into it.” Guinart is captivated by “the wings of the butterfly, seemingly dead.” The girl latches onto Guinart, saying, “You have made me yours. I followed you here and from now on I will follow you always . . . I have nothing to latch onto.”
Her fear is all-encompassing:
[F]ear of the night, of the moon that made her scream as soon as she saw it. Clouds terrified her, lightning sent her hiding under the bed. Later she grew scared of people: tall men, fat women, loud children, old people groping their way along because their eyes were dead, barking dogs, birds launching themselves against the wind . . . Fear of moving, dreaming, laughing. Fear that people might see what she was made of inside.
War has spread fear to all areas of her life—no place is safe. Finally, she walks to the waves of the nearby ocean and strides deep into the water until Guinart can no longer see her.
After his encounter with the girl, Guinart works on a farm with an eccentric, overbearing man. Guinart finds himself in possession of the man’s personal papers after the man’s death. As Guinart reads through his journals, he discovers a life much like his own. The man traveled without aim and witnessed scenes that defy reality. The farmer struggled with the same set of issues that bedevil Guinart: he had problems with the reliability of memory, explaining in “a few brief notes . . . his difficulty recalling a certain dream. Many details had slipped his mind, and others had appeared only to vanish again.”
Guinart moves closer to the war as the novel nears its end. In a chapter titled “The Bricklayer,” Guinart is near to the fighting when he meets a bricklayer whose house has been destroyed by bombs. The man’s companion, Jeremies, is an electrician who had barely learned his trade before he was drafted into the army. Both men—the builders of domestic culture—have lost everything, even the tools of their trade. They see the absolute loss of war:
This war is a terribly calamity, can anyone tell me why we are fighting? The bricklayer said it was to beat back the enemy . . . [but] even if we win this it’ll be as though we’ve lost it, for the way war is set up, everyone loses.
In the final chapters, war takes its ultimate toll on Guinart. Although he is not a soldier and has not fired a gun nor joined an army, he is damaged beyond repair. He has irrevocably changed into a “different me . . . I had seen death up close. And evil. A great sadness like an iron hand clutched my heart.”
In a wider sense, Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War illustrates the endless pliability of the form of the novel. In her hands, the novel exhibits a great range of expression. This story, created from a string of short tales, is bound by Guinart’s progressive loss of innocence. The world suffers with him: the very surface of reality bends and warps, until fantasy, reality and dreams hold equal status. The novel’s chapter-vignettes are connected yet disconnected; they begin by explaining a meaningful event, only to strip that meaning into chaos. Rodoreda’s fractured structure echoes the bewildering and disorienting experience of war. Her novel annihilates our expectations of conventional narrative structure, throwing the rules of writing in crisis just as war mutilates the rules of society, relationships, and even time itself.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel, and short stories.