Garden by the Sea

by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño

reviewed by Gabriella Martin

One of the most fascinating and contradictory aspects of twentieth-century Catalan literature is that much of it was not written in Catalonia. Mercè Rodoreda—arguably the most celebrated Catalan writer of the past century—wrote her classic novel Garden by the Sea in Geneva, Switzerland, between 1959 and 1966, having gone into exile following the Spanish Civil War. Rodoreda was a known flower enthusiast, and the botanical metaphor of the book’s title frames her work in more ways than one; the garden, considered in relation to her exile, recalls both an expulsion (from the Edenic space) and suggests a longing to lay down roots. Garden by the Sea has at last taken root in English, deftly translated by mother-daughter team Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño. Alongside The Time of the Doves and Death in Spring, it is an overdue and riveting addition to Rodoreda’s growing archive of works available to readers of English.

Garden by the Sea is set at a villa on the Catalan Mediterranean where, over six summers and six chapters, a young couple and their cohort of glamorous friends lounge, sunbathe, and play pranks on one another—all narrated through the eyes and memories of the benevolent, unnamed Gardener who tends to the property. When a wealthy stranger, along with his daughter and mysterious son-in-law, move in next door, the neighboring families discover that their histories are more connected than they at first realized. The devastating consequences of this connection come later, but the Gardener laments its results within the novel’s first few paragraphs: “Such gaiety and youth, so much money … so much of everything … and two wrecked lives.” From the start the villa’s joyful exuberance is haunted by the specter of a tragedy the reader knows will come, though not the shape it will take.

At its core, this is a novel of perpetually unfulfilled desire—there is gossip, betrayal, occasional illicit sex on the beach, and impossible yearning. However, readers witness very little of the narrative directly; it is primarily composed of secondhand observations and information that is often partial or filtered through characters like the cook, maid, and other live-in staff who coexist alongside the wealthy vacationers, absorb information about the families as they carry out their work, and eventually pass it along to the Gardener. Even when addressed directly by the neighbor, the Gardener feels “as if he was talking to himself and I was eavesdropping from behind a closed door.” Rodoreda highlights the divisions drawn by class and labor within the villa by exposing who has access to information, and about whom. Her genius lies in how she upends the expectations of who lives the narrative and who tells it; the story of the rich and powerful is told by the workers who tend to them.

The Gardener is a widower who cares deeply about his work, approaching his trees, flowers, and plants with the watchful tenderness of a parent; lengthy descriptions of his garden blend with his narration of the domestic drama. He is kind, quiet, and subservient, often repressing his own opinions to please those in charge. But he is not impartial—his frustration at the owners comes though, but only to the reader; only we are privy to how he really feels. After a champagne-fueled party destroys a portion of the garden, he bemoans, “My job, as usual, would be to fix what a bunch of idlers had ruined.” This job, it turns out, is not limited to his particular seaside garden, but extends far beyond it, as he is often tasked with mending unpleasant interpersonal rifts on behalf of “the masters.” He must “rein in” people, mediate between lovers, remedy disasters. He must clean up the morning after the party, in more ways than one.

While the novel is rife with floral vocabulary, and the Gardener indeed often filters the world through a botanical lexicon—he describes fireworks as “[d]aisies and stars and many-colored bouquets”—the language itself is not flowery, but sparse, minimalist, and neatly translated. Rodoreda masterfully plays with silences; often, what is left unsaid or only suggested is the “action,” taking place off the page, with much merely hinted at. Characters say one thing but mean another, and yet everyone knows precisely what has been communicated. In this regard, the novel calls attention to the way translators are not only tasked with carrying over words, but also the silences between them. Tennent and Relaño resist the temptation of explanation, gracefully translating the words on the page while leaving us with silences, suggestions, and omissions that correspond to Rodoreda’s own.

It is Garden by the Sea’s understated nature what makes it so elegant, and so captivating. This is a novel that slowly “unfolds” in pleats—or, perhaps more appropriately, in petals. Layers of information unfurl, piece by piece, until finally the whole picture is in bloom. It might make you gasp.

Published on August 18, 2020