A Broken Mirror is the book on which Mercè Rodoreda worked the longest, which is not surprising given the novel’s ambitious scope. The plot spans three generations; it presents in detail scores of characters of different ages and social classes; it reflects momentous historical events – most notably the Spanish war of 1936–39. More important, perhaps, the narrative technique of the novel parts with the first-person narratives of Rodoreda’s preceding and ensuing works of fiction. And, as the related events develop, so does the narrative technique itself and even the prose of the narration. Beginning with a fairly standard story (the first chapter could be read independently as a realistic short story), the novel progresses towards more daring ways of storytelling, some of which blur the line between novel and poetry. In this sense A Broken Mirror can be seen as the watershed in Rodoreda’s career, moving from the stark realism that characterises her earlier production to the experimental poetic prose that characterises her later one.
The critic Josefina González has pointed out the autobiographical elements in the novel. Foreseeing such claims, Rodoreda wrote a revealing, meandering foreword to the first edition of the novel. In it she declares: “All my characters have something of me, but none of my characters is me. Besides, my historical time interests me only relatively. I have lived it too much… A novel is also a magical act. It reflects what the author has inside without quite knowing she carries such ballast.”
Rodoreda also muses on the image of the broken mirror. Yet the title-inspiring scene was apparently a fairly late find. Rodoreda informs us that coming upon her title is what allowed her to complete the work, after several lengthy interruptions. She explains how different chapters were written at different times and not in the order she finally chose for her story. The novel as a whole, however, did not fully come into being until Rodoreda found the image that gives it its title – in the episode when a character drops, picks up, and stares at a handheld looking glass. This character, the servant Armanda, sees in its many pieces – some still within the frame, others fallen to the floor – the bits of family life that constitute the novel. The novel offers thus a series of broken pieces – short chapters – held together by the overall narrative frame.
The title of the novel, given the structure of the narrative, makes perfect sense. Besides its reference to theories of the novel, the image of a mirror is fraught with symbolic and even magical signification.”
A mirror that is broken at once distorts and enhances reality. By reflecting a vision from several angles, a broken mirror reminds us of the inherent fragility of a unified viewpoint. The title of the novel, given the structure of the narrative, makes perfect sense. Furthermore, besides its reference to theories of the novel, the image of a mirror is fraught with symbolic and even magical signification. A mirror is a reflection, a mere illusion; a mirror is a symbol of vanity, a portrait in constant change. A broken mirror is thought of in many cultures as an omen of bad luck, and A Broken Mirror is essentially the story of the tragic disintegration of a family. The author reflects:
The first titles I thought I’d give the novel felt flat. A novel is a mirror. What is a mirror? Water is a mirror. Narcissus knew this. The moon knows this, and so does the willow. The whole sea is a mirror. The sky knows this. The eyes are the mirrors of the soul. And of the world. There is the ancient Egyptians’ mirror of truth that reflected all passions, both high and low. There are magic mirrors. Diabolic mirrors. Deforming mirrors. There are little mirrors with which a hunter lures the lark. There is our everyday mirror that makes us strange to ourselves.
The mirror is also the emblem that realist novelists in the nineteenth century chose in order to explain their ambition to paint a lifelike picture of a segment of society. Rodoreda prefaced her notes to the novel with an epigraph – “Un roman: c’est un miroir qu’on promène le long du chemin” – which she took from Stendhal, who attributes it to Saint-Réal, an attribution Rodoreda does not question. The illusion of fidelity is broken into the fifty-two chapters, grouped in three sections, that constitute A Broken Mirror. Each chapter could stand as a terse short story, with its own title.
A Broken Mirror is the only one of Rodoreda’s novels that is not told in the first person. Reflecting on how she stumbled on her technique, Rodoreda wrote: “An author is not God. She cannot know what happens inside her creatures… I cannot tell the reader my character has lost all hope; I must make him feel she has… In other words: A novel’s character may know what she sees and what’s happening to her, but not the author.”
Essentially, Rodoreda echoes the recommendation of ‘show, don’t tell’ that is so prevalent in creative writing workshops. In A Broken Mirror each chapter is anchored in some character’s point of view, often a character who is incidental to the development of the action. The technique, which Carme Arnau has related to cinematic narratives and to the free indirect style of such writers as Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, gives the novel its intensity.
In its overall plot lines A Broken Mirror is a family saga. Its main character, Teresa Goday, is presented in the opening chapter as what is indecorously called a gold digger. Reading on, the reader learns more and more about Teresa. Responding to a felicitous request of her editor, right before its original publication, Rodoreda added a chapter to the completed novel in which a dying Teresa remembers her first love: an affair with a married man who left her pregnant with a boy, Jesús Masdéu, who believed that he was only Teresa’s godchild. By way of the flashback our knowledge of Teresa comes full circle, and we realise the dimensions of the character. In her article ‘The Woman in the Garden’ Maryellen Bieder points out “the reversal of male and female roles, with men the unadaptable victims and women the adaptable survivors” in Rodoreda’s fiction. The theme of women’s dominance and men’s subservience or inadequacy is indeed a major one. But, underlying it, Rodoreda makes us aware that in a patriarchal world women’s power has its limits. No one can hold onto the order of the material world any more than one can hold onto life.
The description of Teresa’s old age is as compelling as it is horrifying. In a scene in chapter 3 of part 3 Teresa rues the ravages of time when the young doctor who tends to her paralysis pats her on the face; she feels the psychological pain of no longer having smooth skin, which had been her weapon for seduction. Teresa sees herself die. Death is one of the themes that run through the novel. The narrative gives us examples of incest, fetishism, murder, suicide – and, less dramatically, but not less poignantly, adultery, sexual frustration, physical handicaps, class conflict, adoption. Women writers after Rodoreda, beginning with Montserrat Roig, later explored topics such as abortion, rape, and also homosexuality that would have been taboo to the Franco era bourgeoisie. Rodoreda herself continued the social exploration of the realist and naturalist periods. A sense of the harshness and utter unfairness of life is latent in this novel, as indeed it might be an essential trait of the modern literary tradition. Along with its bloodstained themes, however, A Broken Mirror also offers scenes of joy and luxury, of love and hope, of laughter and delight – and of confusion, boredom, obsession.
Teresa is the founder of a matriarchal dynasty but one that seems doomed. The novel is as much about the devastating passage of time as about anything else. In A Companion to Catalan Literature Arthur Terry concludes that A Broken Mirror “is one of Rodoreda’s most pessimistic novels.” Functioning as a central symbol, the villa that Teresa’s second husband remodels for the family comes, like the family itself, to decay and is ominously destroyed by the wrecking ball at the end of the novel.
But the villa, and the mirror, are only two of the symbols interwoven in the seemingly realistic tapestry of the novel. Others are the garden, water, flowers (especially violets), and a laurel tree. These symbols blend with the changing lives of the characters.
It is a novel of and about Barcelona. The chronology is loose. The action begins in the prosperous 1870s and ends, shattered, with the advent of the Franco dictatorship.”
A Broken Mirror is the saga of an upper-class family, but it finds many memorable characters among the working class. Several characters, including Teresa, find love across class barriers – loves that prove to be destructive even as the characters attempt to keep desire under control. This theme ties in with another: the quest for a home. Gonzalo Navajas has pointed out the allegorical dimensions of such a quest. Just as Rodoreda, because of the forces of history, could never return to the independent Catalonia of her republican aspirations, so does the family mansion harbor disappointment and foster tragedy, destruction, or exile.
A Broken Mirror is a novel of and about Barcelona. Not perhaps today’s sociologically complex and ethnically diverse Barcelona but the native city that could not but be idealised by a native writer who had been unable to visit it for so long. The chronology of the novel is a bit loose. The action begins in the prosperous 1870s and ends, shattered, with the advent of the Franco dictatorship. Rodoreda’s is a monolingual Catalan-speaking Barcelona, a Heimat (a term Navajas has applied to this novel) more ideal than real. Yet the story at once carries, and moves, the reader. Its themes are the usual fare of fiction: love, power, hatred, betrayal, disappointment, and death – natural or inflicted. The main characters are female, and the men drift around them or avoid them. It is a novel of relationships, a novel whose characters writhe under the passage of time, a novel of maturity.
If A Broken Mirror is sad and pessimistic, it is also shot through with beauty. Each one of its chapters sparkles with a rare lyricism; each moment is a beam of light floating on the wake of decay; each small narrative appears as cutting as a piece of a broken mirror. Each disappointment in the story is infused with an energy that can leave no reader feeling indifferent. Because it is broken into many pieces, the allure of the mirror is multiplied.
Life as a dance of contraries, yes. But also life as something fragile, eminently breakable. The novel’s title congeals in chapter 5 of part 3. When Armanda, the faithful servant who has known all three generations of the family, slips and falls down the stairs, she breaks a mirror.
The mirror had broken. Most pieces remained in the frame, but a few had fallen out. She picked them up and tried to put them back in the spaces she thought they would fit. Did the pieces of the mirror, having lost their level, reflect things as they were? Suddenly, in each piece of the mirror she saw years of her life spent in that house. Fascinated, crouching on the floor, she could not make sense of it. Everything passed, stopped, disappeared. Her world took shape in it, with all its colours, with all its strength. The house, the park, the rooms, the people: young ones, older ones, corpses, the flames of candles, children. The outfits, the décolletages with emerging heads, laughing or sad, starched collars, ties with perfect knots, freshly polished shoes walking on rugs or on the gravel in the garden. An orgy of time past, far, far away. How far away everything was…
A set of lives, and a way of life, has passed. Like Humpty Dumpty, something has fallen and cannot be pieced together again.
From the introduction to the new edition.
Mercè Rodoreda (1908–1983) is considered one of the major Catalan novelists of the postwar period. Among her most important books are La plaça del diamant (The Time of the Doves, 1962) and Mirall Trencat (A Broken Mirror, 1974), now published in a translation by Josep Miquel Sobrer by Daunt Books.
Josep Miquel Sobrer is professor emeritus in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University, Bloomington. His translation with an introduction to A Broken Mirror were first published by University of Nebraska Press in 2006.