As this novel – by the most prominent Catalan writer of the twentieth century, brought to us for the first time in a pitch-perfect translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent – opens, our narrator tells us ‘There was no need to go to the Excelsior to see films the summer they came with their friends’ – and we instantly know that this will be a book about observation, about a drama witnessed and recounted by an old man, who can ‘no longer recall many of the details’ and sometimes gets ‘mixed up’.
There’s a whiff of The Great Gatsby in this novel, even of Brideshead Revisited – it shares the period setting of those books, as well as the depiction of gorgeous people living gilded but self-destructive lives. Most of all, though, it shares with them a narrative approach: the drama is observed by someone who’s simultaneously in the middle of the action and in the audience, watching.
In Garden by the Sea, however, our observer – the gardener of a grand villa situated along the coast from Barcelona – has only a partial view. When an ultra-modern house is built next door, the owner holds a luxurious house-warming party. The gardener watches from a balustrade, and despite his best efforts ‘not to miss a thing’, ‘it was sort of like arriving late at the Excelsior and being given the seat with the column in front of it’.
This moment is a synecdoche for the entire novel. The principal action of the plot – a classic tale of unrequited love and bad marriages – is seen only at an angle, the main incidents recounted second or third hand. Yet the gardener is also at the centre, the confidant of several of the players, and of the servants closest to the intrigue. As readers, we rely on his curiosity, on his nosiness, and on his persistence. As he tells us in the novel’s first line: ‘I’ve always enjoyed knowing what happens to people.’
It is perhaps here, in the character of our narrator, that we discover the book’s true genius. This apparently unassuming, even shrinking man is the subject of the novel as much as the tragedy that forms its plot. In the same way, the garden in which that drama plays out is as important as the drama itself. Rodoreda has made the audience, the set, and even the auditorium, the real focus of her work.
During the last of the six summers the novel covers, ‘an unpleasant summer of rain-filled days’, a film-maker is invited to the villa and begins to film the residents. We never discover the topic of the film. We’re never even told if it is shown. We only see the excitement and discord around its making.
Not long after, ‘the masters’ sell up, leaving the gardener’s future uncertain. The prospect of having to abandon his garden seems suddenly to change his focus; it’s as if he’s only now ready admit what his story has truly been about. It’s a brief, candid moment, placed at the very end of the novel, but it feels as if Rodoreda is whispering in your ear, herself now ready to admit that the hours spent in this beautiful, ever-changing garden, in the company of its gardener, were the moments she wanted her novel to capture.
Reviewed by West Camel
GARDEN BY THE SEA
Written by Mercè Rodoreda
Translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent
Published by Open Letter (2020)
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.
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