Mercé Rodoreda’s work is marked by a concise style infused with a deep attachment to the natural world, one that is both emotionless and yet full of beauty. Open Letter has published four of her novels, Death and Spring, War, So Much War, Camelia Street, and the latest, Garden by the Sea, and each of them has been marked with the same disarming style. The first two are more allegoric, and the latter two more connected to the real world, that of Barcelona and near by. As a traditional story with an arc of action, Garden by the Sea is, perhaps, the most complete, which should not dissuade a reader one way or another as all her novels are magical.
The narrator is the gardener of a large home on the Catalan coast, just outside of Barcelona. It is a large garden and he is a consummate professional, so much so that he describes his plants in great detail. It is detail, though, that comes as dead pan, as if the narrator were a simple man (not uneducated) uninterested in gossip, emotion, or reflection. An example,
Senyoreta Eulalia fell ill. She kept the last letters from her husband under her pillow and she would read them from time to time. And apparently she wept all the salt from her body.
The last phrase is classic Rodoreda.
The story comes at you slowly, no foreshadowing, questions to be answered in the unfolding drama. It’s a dislocating style, one that in its simplicity allows for quiet observation and leaves the reader to puzzle out the gaps. The novel follows the intertwining lives of three families, two who come from humble circumstances and marry into money. It is the rare story where marring into money turns out well, and Garden by the Sea is no exception. There is a Gatsbyesque element to the novel. Yet where the narrator of The Great Gatsby is reflective, aware, the narrator here doesn’t seem to care one way or the other what happens to the families. Much of that comes from the class divide that runs throughout the book. The narrator is an employee, a long term one, but an employee just the same. He watches as the families struggle to recover and relive the past. Naturally, one can’t and the decisions that led to the wrong people marring are unrevokable. Instead, repeat themselves as farce, as arguments and drunken battles the narrator sees from a distance. It is a refreshing approach to a family story. The tragedy is there, but like the flowers in the garden it blooms, dies, and disappears back into the dirt.
Emphasizing the past, is an older couple who raised the ill fated lovers. It is in their memories that we see the love that should’ve been. While the two rich families interact, they generally keep the gardener at arms length so we have no view into what is happening. Instead, the old couple keep the great romance alive and through them the gardener knows about it. Which leaves open the question that perhaps the marriages, and the untimely death of one of the characters, is not because of lost longing. That lost longing is only what a woman with a failing memory wanted. It makes the story, which otherwise seems straight forward, more complicated. Is this a romantic tragedy, or just one of the rich with too much time?
The richness of the language and intelligence of the story telling make Garden by the Sea another welcome addition to the works of Rodereda in English.