Mercè Rodoreda: Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea)
This is one of those gentle novels where there are seemingly not many firework but where the story gradually unfolds, leading, ultimately, to tragedy. It is set almost entirely in and around a summer residence somewhere outside Barcelona. Unusually for Rodoreda, the narrator is male. He had served in the army but after leaving the army, he took up a position as gardener for the owners of the house. Two of the owners have since died and he is now being retained for the new owners, whom the translator quaintly calls Senyoret Francesc and Senyoreta Rosamaria Bohigues (Senyoret and Senyoreta are the Catalan equivalent of the Spanish señor and señora). They are young, recently married and, seemingly, very happy together.
Our unnamed narrator had fallen in love with Cecilia, a housemaid of one of the previous owners. He had been hesitant but, eventually, after two months, makes his move and they are soon married. She is nineteen years younger than him but, despite that, she died at a young age, leaving him a widower. The couple had no children. He is happy in his role, though missing Cecilia, and we learn a lot about his gardening. He has a little house on the property and part of his duties are taking care of the property during the winter when the family are away, either in Barcelona or travelling. Sometimes this is easier than others, as there may well be builders or others he has to supervise.
He gets on well with most people, even though he is happy with his own company and he is treated (almost) as a member of the family. Indeed, on on some occasions, he can be seen as the interface between the family and their guests on the one hand and the staff on the other or, perhaps more accurately, between the well-off and less well-off.
There are various visitors to the house. Feliu Roca is a painter who likes painting the sea but gradually gets bored with it. His friend Eulàlia will later become a painter. Though we do not know this initially, she has a husband, Sebastià. He spends much time in Africa and even brings a live lion back from Africa. It is kept in a cage and our narrator becomes quite friendly with it. He is less friendly with the monkey when it appears.
There are also staff members, with whom he has a mixed relationship. He does not take to the housemaid, Miranda, for example, who is flirtatious and will have an affair with Francesc. This naturally causes quite a few problems. She will also have a slight disagreement with the lion.
There is an empty field next door but it is eventually bought by a rich man, Senyoret Bellom. He is building it primarily for his daughter and son-in-law and this takes some time. He and our narrator will get on well together and Senyoret Bellom will often ask our narrator for advice.
One day our narrator meets an elderly couple coming up from the station. They are looking for Rosamaria. It turns out that they have a son, Eugeni, and that they used to live nest door to Rosamaria’s family. Eugeni and Rosamaria were destined to be married till the much richer Francesc turned up. She decided to marry Francesc and Eugeni tells them he will give them five years and then he is coming for Rosamaria. Meanwhile, Eugeni has disappeared and his parents have come looking for him. Rosamaria is unable to help.
Senyoret Bellom’s house is eventually finished, receiving mixed reviews from the Bohigues household. However, things get very complicated when we learn that the son-in-law of Senyoret Bellom is none other than Eugeni. Eugeni becomes close to our narrator. Things seem to be getting generally worse. Rosamaria is also clearly not happy and has a sort of nervous breakdown. Even Feliu Roca is miserable. Eugeni suggests to our narrator that they run away to America together. Meanwhile, Sebastià has problems in Africa.
However, life goes on and we head into the last season of the book. This is when things not only go wrong but have a tragic element. All the while our gardener quietly observes events and is often dragged in to help out.
Rodoreda tells a beautiful story of, on the one hand, our quiet, gentle, well-respected gardener following both the course of nature as he plants his flowers, watches them grow and, on occasion, suffer the vicissitudes of both nature and humans, while following the actions of the humans around him – sometimes rash and foolhardy, sometimes sad, sometimes even joyous and, on the other, a group of people with their various issues ranging from love and romance to mental health. Those that come out best seem to be the ones who have a great love and respect for the natural world. Barcelona is mentioned and, indeed, our narrator does visit it once, but it is seen as a somewhat distant, remote and alien place. Life, indeed, the world, is in the garden, with the trees and bushes and flowers.
First published 1967 by Club Editor
First English translation by Open Letter in 2020
Translated by Martha Tennet and Maruxa Relaño