The Time of Cherries by Montserrat Roig

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Translated by Julia Sanches

Review by Michael Eaude

Lemons and Cherries

Most reviews I write are of Catalan fiction translated to English. I often wonder whether my commitment to learning about and promoting Catalan literature causes imbalance in my reviews. I may be making outsized claims for a translated book because English-language publishers’ parochialism meant that, until the translation boom of recent years, they published few. I wonder less each year, for some 20 books a year are translated now from Catalan to English. This means that each book does not need to carry the weight of a little-regarded literature. A reviewer does not need to exaggerate a book’s quality. All this to introduce Montserrat Roig’s The Time of Cherries. It is an outstanding novel. I’ve been longing for years for it to be translated. It is one of the finest books in modern Catalan fiction.

In her too-short life (1946-1991), Montserrat Roig wrote five novels, two books of short stories, numerous newspaper articles, books on literature, feminism and the siege of Leningrad, and her masterpiece, an 800-page account of the Catalans interned in Nazi concentration camps. Published in 1977 after five years of interviews and research, the book challenged Catalans to look back to the values of the Republic (1931-39), crushed by the Franco dictatorship (1939-1977). Roig (pronounced to rhyme with Scotch) also brought up two children. She conducted television interviews (several available on YouTube) and was a political activist with the PSUC (Catalan Communist Party), which she left when it supported the monarchy. She was a major figure in Catalan public life from 1970 when her first book of stories came out to her death from cancer.

The two most basic achievements of this socialist and feminist rebel’s writing were that she examined life under the dictatorship, including the anti-Franco resistance, through women’s eyes; and second, she looked back beyond Franco to Catalonia’s twentieth-century history. Roig’s books sought to understand and explain what had moulded her generation, in both personal and political terms. In the personal realm, sexual liberation was tentatively reaching a new generation in the 1960s, as the dictatorship liberalised slightly, neighbouring France saw huge class struggle and social change, and tourism brought masses of North Europeans to Catalonia — but women were still subordinate. Politically, Roig not only fought the dictatorship through organisation and action, but was a writer who set out to weave anew the thread of tradition and memory of Catalonia, torn by the repression of the dictatorship – a repression that forbade the speaking of Catalan and the publication of books in Catalan.

The Time of Cherries (originally 1976) is the second book of a trilogy, but can be read as a free-standing novel. Montserrat Roig’s first novel and the first in the trilogy Goodbye, Ramona (originally 1972; translated by María Cristina Hall and Megan Berkobien and published by Fum d’Estampa in 2022) studies three generations of women – grandmother, mother and daughter – from the 1890s to the 1960s. The Time of Cherries enters the same world of middle-class women in the late nineteenth-century apartment blocks of Barcelona’s Eixample, the expansion of the city across the plain. The city is a constant presence in the novel, both loved and feared.

When Natàlia Miralpeix returns to Barcelona in 1974, after 12 years away, mainly in England, she stays with her widowed aunt Patrícia. To her shock, her aunt’s magical garden inside an Eixample block has been sold and cemented over, its fragrant lemon tree uprooted. In Natàlia’s urban childhood this garden was a hidden, green refuge, where you could run free and speak Catalan, safe from Franco’s police who patrolled the hostile streets. Proust’s madeleine opened for the narrator the world of his childhood; but Montserrat Roig’s lemon tree has gone for good. In The Time of Cherries there is no recovery of lost time. Natàlia has to confront the past without nostalgia. She returns with double vision: she belongs to her city and country, but arrives with an outsider’s eyes, too.

Natàlia left Catalonia just before the Communist Julián Grimau was executed in 1963. Now in March 1974, she returns two days after the dictatorship garrotted the anarchist Salvador Puig Antich. It seems that the horror is unchanged — but everything is changing. Natàlia is the middle-class bohemian, somewhat adrift. She is the character who is closest to the author but, like all Roig’s characters, she is seen critically as well as affectionately. Patrícia’s maid, Encarna, finds her “a little dishevelled… She dresses like a gypsy”. Natàlia is selfish, or self-preserving: her father Joan is not unjustified in his criticism that she fled to England rather than help to care for her sick mother. Her profession as a photographer makes her the observer, pinpointing events and halting time in a picture.

Natàlia recalls the events leading up to her self-imposed exile. Before leaving Catalonia, she became sexually involved with Emilio, an anti-Franco activist. Roig describes two terrifying consequences (the political and the personal) in powerful set-pieces: Natàlia was arrested and mistreated after a demonstration; and she had a botched, back-street abortion. It is the detail that makes these sections, indeed the whole novel, so strong. Roig writes novels of feminist and socialist ideas, but the details mean these ideas are always rooted in powerful, sometimes lyrical, descriptions.

Though Natàlia is the central character, the novel is not linear, but is structured like a tapestry through several times, voices and points of view, all in the third person. The main counterpoint to Natàlia’s fragile independence is her brother’s wife, Sílvia, who on marriage gave up a career as a classical dancer to look after her architect husband, Lluís. Sílvia, fragile and dependent, spends her time making sure their house and her body are exactly as Lluís wants, preferring not to think about his sordid affairs and visits to prostitutes. Lluís takes an unenthused Sílvia to Perpignan to see Last Tango in Paris and other erotic/pornographic films forbidden by the dictatorship. The right to watch pornography is a ‘freedom’ that only adds to sexual oppression. Unsurprisingly, “Sílvia’s nerves were always frayed and she often cried for no reason”.

The other set-piece as powerful as the abortion and arrest chapters describes an afternoon Tupperware party. Sílvia and three friends get drunk and, ending up naked, act out the cruel sadism of the nuns at their convent school. It is “a deeply physical and disturbing scene, an anarchic dissolution of the everyday,” in the words of Wendy Erskine in her stimulating introduction to the novel. Roig’s skill, as with all her characters, is to portray Sílvia from within, through her own voice. Natàlia, and readers at first, see Sílvia as a privileged fool, but Roig’s empathy makes readers feel for a trapped Sílvia. Roig’s characters are contradictory, never one-dimensional.

Natàlia’s older friend, the artist Harmonia, is a “reluctant daughter of Francoism”, returned from exile. Part of what was known as the interior resistance, she pushes Natàlia to take responsibility for her life. These five women mentioned are the main voices of the novel. The men, as seen by the women, are a sorry bunch. Lluís and his friends only love football, fast cars (the fetishism of speed in an expensive car!) and being waited on by their wives. Natàlia’s father, Joan, also suffers sexual repression and political oppression that leave him afraid, authoritarian and, finally, mad. Patrícia’s husband only married her for money and preferred sex with men. Roig’s portraits are fierce. Here too, though, in avoidance of value judgments, she shows both Lluís and Joan through their own thoughts. They damage their women, but are themselves damaged and just as lost. Readers won’t sympathise with them, but Roig wants them to be understood. And Natàlia’s nephew, aspirant poet and rebel Màrius, offers hope for the future. In the new generation men might even be different!

The Time of Cherries is a dense, extremely well-constructed and well- written novel. Montserrat Roig explains the Barcelona of 1974, on the brink of enormous change, by delving into its history. The perfume of fear pervades the decades of dictatorship. Childhood and youth were the times of cherries, of pleasures and hopes. Those times are as irrecoverable as Natàlia’s lost lemon tree, but the uncertain future might also bring the sweet cherries of revolution, a “springtime of joy”. If that future is to be grasped, Roig shows, then the past has to be disinterred, deconstructed and understood.

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Michael Eaude has lived between Barcelona and the hills of Valencia for thirty years. He is the author of several books including Catalonia: A Cultural History and Triumph at Midnight in the Century: A Critical Biography of Arturo Barea. He has written for the GuardianLiterary Review and Socialist Review. His website can be found here: www.michaeleaude.com.

Monserrat Roig, The Time of Cherries (Daunt, 2024). 978-1914198298, 224pp., paperback original.

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