The novel Pas Pleurer (Don’t Cry) by Lydie Salvayre was the narrow winner of France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, at the end of 2014, beating the favorite, Kamel Daoud Meursault’s Contre-Enquête, by five votes to four in the fifth round of voting. Given the fact that the president of the jury, Bernard Pivot, in announcing the prizewinner, complained that there was “too much Spanish” in Salvayre’s novel, it was clearly a contentious decision. Yet, to my mind, Salvayre is richly deserving of the award.
Focusing on two families in a Catalan village during the Spanish Civil War, Pas Pleurer is made up of exquisitely interwoven narratives that explore the complexities, contradictions and personal tragedies of a conflict from which very few leading figures emerged unblemished.
The narrator, like the author, is the daughter of two exiled supporters of the Republican cause, and much of the narrative focuses on the years 1936 and ’37, as recounted to the narrator by her elderly mother, Montse, in the present. It is here that the language is at its most inventive, suffused with Hispanisms and grammatical mistakes that reflect Montse’s spoken French but make it unlikely that the novel will ever be used as a guide to learning accurate French.
Those two years represent the moments most vividly experienced and most precisely remembered by the aging Montse (she uses the gallicized version of the Spanish verb “recordar”: “se raccorder”) at a time when all else seems to have faded from her failing memory.
As a teenager, Montse had had a brief but life-changing affair in Barcelona with a Frenchman fighting for the Republican cause. Finding herself pregnant, she has no choice other than to return to her village, where she feels obliged to marry Diego, a Stalinist even though he belongs to one of the very few wealthy families in the village. He is also the deadly rival of Montse’s anarchist brother José.
Through the prism of these personal rivalries, Salvayre deftly paints a picture of the infighting among supporters of the left that was to play such a large part in Franco’s eventual victory. Perhaps most affecting of all is the account of the evolving relationship (described as “une forme de sympathie discrete,” a form of discreet empathy) between Montse and her father-in-law Don Jaime, with whom she has more in common than with her husband.
Running alongside these personal histories are extracts from a little-known account of the Spanish troubles by the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos. Initially a supporter of General Franco and the Fascist Falange, Bernanos, who was living in Majorca at the time, swiftly became disillusioned because of the many massacres (carried out on innocent people by the Fascists) that were openly blessed by the Catholic Church, and bravely chose to expose these outrages in Les Grands Cimetières sous la Lune.
By using the Bernanos text and certain historical facts in addition to Montse’s tale, Salvayre succeeds triumphantly in placing the intimate stories she is telling into a much broader framework. At one point, she describes the conflicts as Shakespearian, but I was reminded of another writer who explored earlier Spanish family and political battles from a French perspective in his play Le Cid: Pierre Corneille.
Salvayre’s novel manages to be deeply compassionate and fiercely angry, yet goes even further. The French have a wonderful word, “jubilatoire,” which evades easy translation into English because it has the all-embracing sense of being exhilarating and joyous at the same time. As strange as it may seem to use this word to describe a book permeated by bloodshed and sadness, that is precisely the impression I was left with upon finishing Pas Pleurer. It is compellingly and movingly “jubilatoire.”