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‘So desperately temporary’ [book review]

A review of The Song of Youth by Montserrat Roig, translated from the Catalan by Tiago Miller

Eva Baltasar, a prominent Catalan poet and author whose novel Permafrost I reviewed earlier this year, describes Montserrat Roig’s work as ‘an array of lagoons in which [her] most extraordinary flowers lay their roots’. It’s certainly an arresting piece of blurb copy, and a metaphor that also proves to be quite apt: The Song of Youth, a short collection of even shorter stories, is exactly what Baltasar describes. Blooming brightly above a deep lake of thought, Roig’s stories have an ephemeral quality – much like the author herself, who died tragically young – yet thanks to the quiet power of her words, they live on in the mind long after reading. In Tiago Miller’s radiant translation, published by Fum d’Estampa Press, these stories bring one of Catalonia’s most influential writers to an English-speaking audience for the very first time.

Cover image The Song of Youth

‘Uninterrupted order in a story is disingenuous,’ proclaims one of Roig’s many characters, figures that are often as preoccupied with the language and structure of the stories they are telling as with events themselves. This bleeding of the author’s role into those of her characters is perhaps a little unorthodox, yet it is a move that seems entirely natural within the context of Roig’s stories and her intellectual interest in the power (and occasional ensuing abuse) of language. Giving a voice to the unheard – women in particular, but also those repressed by war or politically silenced by the Franco regime – The Song of Youth is much concerned with how we wish to tell our own stories and what others allow us to share of them.

Take memory: as Zelda, the narrator of the titular story, would attest, we do not remember the past in purely linear form. Lying in a hospital bed listening to a succession of women breathe their last behind a partitioning screen, Zelda recalls one – or possibly a series – of the heady moments of her youth, centred on a passionate tryst with her lover in the vineyards before he returns to the front. As death draws closer to both Zelda and her neighbour on the ward, the past commingles increasingly with the present, initially paragraph by paragraph, but soon sentence by sentence: ‘She listened to the fourth woman wheeze more slowly now, her hand still held next to the peeling paint. She saw a hand stretched towards a sun depositing its fiery dregs along the jagged crests before it disappeared beyond the mountains. The skin was still elastic then.’ Zelda’s ‘song of youth’ is both elegy and anthem, Roig’s every word filled with the dizzying potential of youth and a helpless, mournful rage at feeling life slip away. The sense of transience, of powerlessness in the face of time’s unrelenting march, is strong here, and echoed evocatively elsewhere in the collection.

This non-linear approach to memory also recurs throughout The Song of Youth, offering an authentic representation of the human experience, in which our minds allow memories to coexist with events as we live them. In ‘Mar’, a middle-aged woman recalls a two-year female friendship that bordered on desire, but was perhaps merely an experience of love in its truest form. Though fully aware that she will never see Mar again, she remembers her friend in vivid terms: the language Miller has adopted for Roig’s more descriptive sections is almost painterly, bringing both landscape scenes and complex feelings to life in a richly moving way. In a later story, ‘The Chosen Apple’, a woman named Nadiejda cares for her dying husband while reliving his mother’s objection to their relationship. Again, Roig mixes past and present indiscriminately, which requires the reader to pay close attention but provides a startlingly intimate perspective on an interior life – a slightly less extreme form of the stream-of-consciousness narrative.

A staunch feminist, Roig’s main protagonists are chiefly women, with the notable exception of the narrator of ‘Before I Deserve Oblivion’ – perhaps the strangest story in the collection. A former teacher who was caught spying on girls in the changing rooms, the narrator now works as a state censor, ‘condemning [words] to oblivion’ at the behest of his superiors. Just as words once destroyed his own school career, so too did the narrator destroy his father’s life – having witnessed his affair with a circus artist, he ‘informed’ on him to his mother. The many layers of this story are complex, but together they add up to a powerful comment on a repressive regime and, beyond this, the myriad ways in which we silence others – or are ourselves silenced – in the course of everyday human experience.

Often searching for something within themselves, self-silencing is another theme Roig chooses to explore through her characters. Mirrors feature heavily throughout the collection – whether made of glass or something natural, like a pool of water, the reflections they throw back are significant. At times, this finding of the self is successful, such as in the case of Maria, heroine of the more light-hearted ‘Love and Ashes’. Following the absurd death of her overbearing husband, she finds herself freed from the constraints of her previous life and ends the story sitting by a mirror, toasting her reflection with champagne as though looking at an entirely different woman. For others, like the narrator of ‘Mar’, getting to know oneself was dependent on knowing another, now departed, person. Loss hangs heavy over this story, as it does over others concerned with death and conflict: the heartbreakingly simple ‘Division’, and the ghostly, dreamlike cemetery setting of ‘I Don’t Understand Salmon’.

Mar, one of the most memorable characters in the collection – and one who seems to bear a degree of personal importance to the author – is said by her grieving friend to have been ‘so terribly welcoming yet so desperately temporary’. It is a description befitting of Roig’s stories themselves, which draw us in with bold, vibrant pen strokes while simultaneously containing a strong sense of impending loss. Perhaps a reflection of how Roig herself viewed life – all the more poignant since she died at the age of forty-five – and certainly a comment on life under a dictatorship, this and so much more is contained within The Song of Youth. Gracefully translated and filled with stark beauty, this multi-layered collection is complex yet enthralling, and, with time, only keeps on giving.

The Song of Youth by Montserrat Roig, translated by Tiago Miller, is published by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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