Translated from Catalan by David Rosenthal
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2018)
Cecilia C is found on the street as a baby and pointed towards the only splendor in her situation. The gentleman who adopts her lifts her into his arms, and his words are recounted years later by the neighborhood women. “’Look at the carnations,’ they say he said, ‘look at the roses, look, look.’”
It’s not the only thing the neighborhood women say about her origins, as the speculation of her parentage is a popular gossip prompt in their part of town. “One lady who lived nearby said maybe my father was a murderer,” “They said my mother was probably one of those music hall singers, the kind who dance and have all the men they want and then find out they’ve got a kid without knowing whose it is,” “They said my father must be one of those men who try to assassinate the queen and leave bombs where they know her train will pass.”
Maria-Cinta, a femme fatale with a rich lover who dresses in lavish, neckline-plunging garb and regularly attends the opera, takes Cecilia’s hand one day and tells her that she’s “never seen a child with such pretty hands; that I must be a pianist’s daughter. And I burst into tears.”
And with that, Merce Rodorera’s Camellia Street begins, a stream-of-consciousness meditation on what it means to be alone in the world as a woman. With vision-inducing imagery and a candor designed to combat the speculative stories of her childhood, Rodorera introduces us to a first-person narrator who is wrapped in every aspect of herself, hidden from the aftermath of the Spanish Civil war that rages around her in Barcelona. We’re absorbed in a narrow, shielding view of her life as she runs away from her adoptive home to live in a shantytown with her lover, as she decides through a process of practicality to work as a prostitute, as she becomes a professional mistress and learns how to practice the trade safely after nearly dying from jealous male violence.
Cecilia tells us her story with distance, a firm arm between herself and the narrative she’s attached to. “My hair was chestnut colored and glossy…I could feel it falling against my neck, straight and sad. Sad like me. Because I felt sad about lots of things.”
She doesn’t tell us why, or what she’s sad about, but after everything we’ve heard, we can speculate like the neighbors.
As readers, we become those neighbors, Cecilia putting us in their voyeuristic shoes and granting firsthand glimpses of her tragedy, her helplessness. The circumstances of her time dictate her survival at the hands of men, and she is no fool to that — she knows that her livelihood is at their mercy, their interest. She floats in solitude, in periods of waiting, sheltered by the volatile homes they keep her in. She waits for her first lover, Eusebi, in his shack, for a married lover, Marc, to visit her in his unsettling part-time apartment. She goes to a café during the day and comes home to find the doormat crooked, hears knocking noises while she’s trying to fall asleep, is driven crazy by her decrepit old neighbor with a tongue wart and poor leg circulation.
Still, she wants us to see something else — this is her story, her telling, after all. She shows us her defiance, her vigor, a resilience she’s developed in her self-protective egotism. She kicks the doormat straight when she gets home from the café, avoids her old neighbor and refuses to look at her lumps, hits and kicks back when Marc and his friends drug and beat her, accusing her of cheating on Marc with an elderly general.
She sets the record straight for anyone who may have thought her weak after the beating, for anyone who saw her partially conscious on a bench, arms around a tree trunk.
Camellia Street is about desire and the beauty that can come from impulsivity, but it’s also about orphan-hood and the disappointment of truth. It’s about how brutal the world can be without considering what we deserve and the fact that life keeps moving as long as we’re still breathing. It’s the opposite of a lesson, the antithesis of a parable, meant to teach us nothing because what is there really to be taught?
It’s bleak, but also lovely, Cecilia’s landscape filled with rose bushes, chrysanthemums, glass cases with pressed ferns. Like the man who took her in, she points us towards the flowers. “Red camellias and white camellias, pink-and-white-speckled camellias, stemless, lying flat against the branches like they were dead.”
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Gloria Beth Amodeo‘s fiction, reviews and interviews have appeared in H.O.W. Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, The Literary Review, Bort Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Program and lives in Brooklyn.