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Camellia Street

Mercè Rodoreda

“Camellia Street, published in 1966, is the starkest of all Rodoreda's works. It chronicles the life and, obliquely, the times of Cecília C, a street-corner prostitute and later a kept woman in numb, exhausted postwar Barcelona. Cecília, a foundling whose name is written on a scrap of paper pinned to her bib, never takes to her adoptive parents. She flees their stifling attentions and obsessive chatter about her origins as soon as she can – first in search of her father, who has appeared to her in a vision, and then more definitively with her first lover, Eusebi. From this point on her life is, in her own words, spent “searching for lost things and burying dead loves”. Incapable of either emotional attachment or shared sensual pleasure, Cecília lives frozen in her own narcissism and anomie. The parallels between her inner life and the disoriented, catatonic Barcelona of the 1940s and 1950s are striking, but Rodoreda never presses the point. Everything is presented from Cecília's point of view, in a stream-of-consciousness similar to that in The Time of the Doves . Though not as much of a victim as Jean Rhys's heroines, Cecília resembles them in her helpless, bitter drift through a world of lovers who either quickly bore her or whom she never liked in the first place.

Whing her fog of passivity and static self-absorption, however, Cecília longs vaguely but insistently for something else. Sometime it's another lover, some man whom she can't get for the moment. At other times she craves the emblems of glamour, which she first encounters through her demimondaine “cousins” Raquel and Maria-Cinta. A poor, half-starved streetwalker with all her grand conquests of her, Cecília seeks a luxurious car and starts to fantasize:

I thought someday I'd have a car too and sit in the back with a pearl necklace and pearl earrings and a ring with a white pearl and a black one and the chauffeur would open the door and say “miss” with his cap in his hand. And I'd be wearing a pink dress.

More importantly, Cecília craves love from her father, or from a child. But instead, in her affair with Marc (which occupies a third of the book), she experiences a perverse cruelty and jealousy that slowly build into scenes of hallucinatory intensity. The atmosphere of paralyzed claustrophobia, petty suspicion and spying, stifled daydreaming and male brutality that dominates this section is foreshadowed by Cecília's first response to her new lover: “I didn't move and just stared at him like a bird a snake is about to gobble up”. A series of abortions and miscarriages –the last nearly fatal and provoked by a blow from Marc or one of his friends−deprives her of any chance to have children. The warmly paternal presence she seeks also eludes her until the last chapter. Then, after seeking out the night watchman who had originally found her on a doorstep, Cecília lets herself become a child again and reaches out to the old man. Thus Camellia Street, a tale of emotional stupor in a world of moral corruption and self-betrayal, seems to end on a note of tenuous rebirth:

I looked around and it seemed like the ceiling was higher, the window was bigger and he seemed taller too like he'd been growing while we talked and I hadn't noticed. Everything was bigger and I was smaller. I put my feet on the rung under the chair, with my elbows and my knees and my face in my hands. I say very slowly, “I'll buy you a rosebush, a thick wool sweater, a cockatoo and aniseed…bushels of aniseed.”

To place Camellia Street and its author in their proper perspective, the American reader may find some historical background useful. Catalan is a language spoken by approximatedly seven million people, some of whom live in the Balearic Islands, others in a small strip of southern France that includes Perpinyà (Perpignan), and others in Spain proper, from Alicant (Alicante) to the French border and between the Mediterranean Sea and Aragon. A Roman language, Catalan is closer to Provençal and Italian to Castilian (the language normally called “Spanish”).

The most interesting Catalan literature is of two periods: from the late Middle Ages through the early Renaissance, and from around 1870 to the present. The first era produced such outstanding writers as the lyric poet Ausiàs March (ca. 1397-1495) and the novelist Joanot Martorell (ca. 1410-1468), whose masterpiece Tirant lo Blanc was described by Cervantes as “the best book of its kind in the world.” During the past century, Cataloniahas produced an astonishing body of artistic work. In the visual arts, the genius figures like Salvador Dalí, Antoni Gaudí, Juli Gonzàlez, Arístides Maiollol, Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies is universally recognized. Catalan writing is of equally high quality, but the world has been slower to become aware of its virtues−partly due to a lack of good translations, and partly because of the Franco government's deliberate suppression.

Since Franco's death, Catalans have moved steadily toward self-government. They now have a bilingual government and a Statue of Autonomy. Free elections to the Catalan parliament recently took place. The study of Catalan is obligatory in the schools, and Catalan daily newspapers, television channels, and radio stations are free to operate. Thanks to authors such as Rodoreda and the poets J.V. Foix, Salvador Espriu, and Vicent Andrés Estellés, Catalan literature has remained as vital as ever. One hopes that these writers, who have spoken so eloquently for and to their nation, will now begin to receive the recognition they deserve in the United States.”

RODOREDA, Mercè. Camellia Street [El Carrer de les Camèlies]. Translated and with an introduction by David H. Rosenthal; foreword by Sandra Cisneros. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, cop. 1993.
Translated by David H. Rosenthal
David H. Rosenthal
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The visitor - David H. Rosenthal
“Tirant lo Blanc” - Joanot Martorell
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