Mercè Rodoreda’s “The Salamander” is the story of a woman who, already salamander-like, frolics in a marsh among the frogs and insects. She is kissed by a strange man who pins her against a willow tree, and, when she notices his wife watching, calls her a witch.
Soon her entire village ostracizes her, eventually burning her at the stake. As the flames touch her, she transforms into a salamander, which in European folklore was an amphibian resistant to fire. She survives the bonfire and scurries to her marsh, seeing the strange world from much lower to the ground than she is used to. Terrified, she tries to relocate the man who abandoned her. However, the village chases her off.
She returns to her marsh, trying to find a place to hide from the cruel world, but she is confronted by eels that bite her tiny hand off, which dissolves into the pond. The ending is ambiguous, but she appears to have an epiphany about how she has always inhabited two worlds, never fully belonging to either.
This is a darkly beautiful story with vivid, natural imagery and a dreamlike mix of narrative and stream of consciousness. It is also a profound reflection of exile and transformation. In one poignant moment, the narrator stands beneath the cross in the man’s house, begging God to release her from her metamorphosis:
“I began to pray for myself, because inside me, even though I wasn’t dead, no part of me was wholly alive. I prayed frantically because I didn’t know if I was still a person or only an animal or half-person, half-animal. I also prayed to know where I was, because there were moments when I seemed to be underwater, and when I was underwater I seemed to be above, on land, and I could never know where I really was.”“The Salamander”
Her predicament is similar to Io’s in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: she has been turned into an animal and has lost the ability to communicate in her language. This is greatly significant in light of the author’s life, since Rodoreda passed through a literary dry period during her exile from her native Catalonia during World War II. Cut off from her Catalan language in France and Switzerland, she did not write for two decades before finally recovering her voice with La plaça del Diamant in 1962. Rodoreda was caught out of the water of her native language, inhabiting a liminal position between two worlds, just like a salamander.
Although Io feels she is trapped in the body of a heifer, the salamander is not sure where her animality begins or ends. She seems to reach the conclusion she has always been a salamander. Occasionally in Ovid, a metamorphosis reveals an aspect of one’s identity that has always been there. It is the same way here.
It is also worth noting that the salamander metamorphosis is not the only one in this story: it is also the story of how a woman becomes a witch (in the eyes of the village). Her lover’s spiteful use of the label and a village’s mob mentality determines this “transformation.” The narrator is witch-like in the beginning too (she kneels in a pond, letting frogs gather around her skirts like familiars), but she is far from evil. It is only when she notices her lover is cheating on his wife that her lover calls her a witch, othering her, passing blame onto her, turning her into a village pariah. She is dehumanized, tossed “on top of [a] pile of wood, as if [she] were just another branch” and burned. The salamander transformation may save her from the flames, but it does so at the price of losing her humanity.
If New Weird can be distinguished from older iterations of weird fiction in how it depicts monsters as more sympathetic, Rodoreda’s story certainly anticipates this trend. The thing to fear in this story is not the witch but the witch burner. The salamander is not entirely an image of empowerment, but it does represent survival, the reality of in-between identities, and the narrator’s self-knowledge.
Like many monsters, the narrator has never neatly inhabited society’s strict categories or classifications. Indeed, the witch burning suggests how women in general risk being “reclassified” as “witches” when they run afoul of gender-based expectations. Transformation is a way for the narrator, as a woman, to escape patriarchal violence.
Amphibians themselves inhabit an in-between space in terms of classification, between water- and land-based creatures. In a similar way, the narrator is stuck between worlds. Writing about the salamander, Rodoreda herself can be seen as commenting on her experience as a linguistic exile.
Next week, I will be reading “The Ghoulbird” by Claude Seignolle (1967).