Garden by the Sea by Merce Rodereda – A Review

Garden by the Sea
Mercé Rodoreda
Maruxa Relanño and Martha Tennent, trans
Open Letter, 2020

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.

Guadalajara by Quim Monzo – A Review

Quim Monzo
Open Letter, 2011, 125pg

Quim Monzo is a joker. A literary one, but a joker all the same. In Gasoline, his last work to make it into English, that humor was sour and lacked direction (see my review). Consequently, I had some trepidation that Guadalajara would succumb to the meandering obsessions that were neither fun nor interesting. Fortunately, Guadalajara is immanently readable and the stories show that his reputation as an inventive short story writer is well deserved. His stories all have an undercurrent of humor often coming from the retelling of well known stories. It is in subverting of the heroic or even just the humanistic that Monzo makes his black commentaries on human behavior, usually to great effect. But Guadalajara also reveals a writer interested in extending and playing with the stories that are literary common places, and in doing so constructing his own enigmas and dilemmas; counter enigmas that stand on their own but enrich the familiar.

In Outside the Gates of Troy he creates an alternate story of the Trojan Horse where Ulysses and his men wait day after day for the Trojans to drag the wooden horse into the walls. But the Trojans are to smart or suspicious and the men slowly die, alone, weak, unable to leave the horse. Ulysses holds on to the futility and can only cover his ears to avoid the groans of his men. Instead of heroism, we have the desperate futility of hanging on to a plan that will not work. Bravery sounded good, but Ulysses is left with nothing and so has to hope for something that will never come. Plugging his ears doesn’t save the men like it would in the Odyssey, it is a disappointment.

In a similar line, Gregor flips Kafka’s Metamorphosis and writes it from the prospective of a cockroach who becomes a man. The process of becoming a man is a discovery: the new sensations, the new physical attributes, the freedom to roam among the humans. But it is a heartless self discovery as he becomes a true human and purposely squashes his family under foot, because to be human is to be amongst one’s own kind, but to also destroy the foreign. For Monzo, Gregor could do little but squash his family, because that is the nature of transformations, you become something else, you are not both.

You see that thought, too, in Family Life, which describes a family where young boys when they come of age, have part of their finger cut off. Some boys go willing into the ritual because that is what one is expected to do, a few are resistant, but they internalize the cutting and in future generations expect others to have their fingers cut. Eventually, though, one boy refuses because he wants to be a musician and the family lets him escape the punishment. But that act of kindness also destroys the tradition and without tradition the family slowly grows apart. Given the power of tradition to hold groups together, the question here is which was worse? Or does that even matter since this is just what happens? With Monzo you have the sense that it is a once a problem, but inevitable. Although, like some of the stories in Merce Rodereda, tradition is too often evoked to excuse the powerful.

Monzo also likes to lean to the surreal. In Centripetal Force he describes an apartment building whose residents cannot leave by themselves. If someone comes to visit, they can leave with them, but if they try the same feat latter they find themselves in an endless loop. It is a contagious feature of the building and when “the man” (he often does not name his characters) is rescued by firefighters, the firefighters become trapped within the building. Its a comic and surreal story, but that Centripetal Force is all pervasive and the man who can’t leave his apartment, is really just an extreme compression of most people’s lives: the daily return to home, that centripetal force everyone has.

He also likes to play with the way people interpret events through the media. In  The Lives of the Prophet and During the War he builds realities based on the rote generics that fill the media during war or great calamity. During the War Monzo narrates the start of a war, but what war is it really? The descriptions that describe the war are almost a template of how wars should be reported. During the War has the strange honor of being devoid of description, or actual specific content, such as place, but feels as if the war is real because it is a narrative seen so many times. His writing style underscores that nicely since Monzo is a spare writer and the bland description of the war starting makes it even more darkly funny.

Despite its short length, Guadalajara is filled with stories like these that are funny, dark, and enigmatic. They also feel fresh, a reinvestigation of the short story that sometimes feels rote and repetitive. He is well deserving of his reputation of one of Spain’s best short story writers.

The Short Stories of Merce Rodereda – A Brief Review

I just finished reviewing The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda for Asymptote Journal so I don’t want to say too much about the book. However, it is an excellent read and worth a read for sure. If you have read Death and Spring with came out last year you will see a few similarities to some of the later stories, but her earlier works are much different, and just as good.