By Eva Dunsky
In Garden by the Sea, translated by the mother-daughter team Martha Tennant and Maruxa Relaño, Rodoreda writes a slow burn towards catastrophe. Rodoreda, who is considered one of the most important Catalan writers of the 20th century, wrote often about Catalan society in the years before and after the Spanish Civil War, and how it was altered in its wake by the repression of Franco’s dictatorship. More than that, however, she wrote with incredible deftness about the intimate domestic moments that constitute the majority of life, and her work is rife with small insights and stolen pleasures. In Garden by the Sea, like in most of her novels, almost nothing happens on the page — much is hinted at, not a lot is said, and it’s the reader’s job (or privilege) to unspool her implications.
Rodoreda’s work denies us easy emotion; instead, emotional experience is conveyed through what remains unsaid, a skill Rodoreda performs with a unique mastery. Mostly, characters idle, spending their summers at a villa in the countryside, floating listlessly through life on the coattails of familial wealth. Slowly, the situation at the villa implodes, precipitated by the construction of another house next door, whose inhabitants shake up the already tenuous relationships at play. The story is narrated by the villa’s gardener, who quietly tends to the gardens over the course of six summers. “In the evening I went out in my hooded rain slicker,” the gardener says. “They were all standing by the main door to the house, under the awning, looking grim and gazing up at the sky saying maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after that” (187).
Garden by the Sea is largely a novel about waiting. For instance, there’s Eugeni, who’s been spurned by Rosamaria, his childhood playmate-turned-sweetheart. He waits for her for five years, during which time he severs himself from his family and disappears, assuming she’ll tire of her marriage and return to him. Once the time he’s allotted her has passed, he shows up as her neighbor at the larger villa next door.
Then there’s the gardener – a confidant to everyone, he is both a part of life at the villa and completely outside of it. He putters around the property, mollifying himself with routine to anesthetize the pain of his young wife’s death, of a life that’s passed him by in grief. It is through him that we experience the antics of the other people at the house, which serves to neutralize both their suffering and joy, casting a pallor over everything, a sadness that masquerades as indifference.
Perhaps most poignantly, there are Eugeni’s parents. Their relationship has eroded under the pressure of a missing child, and as they dine with the gardener, it becomes clear that the uncertain status of their son has shaken them so profoundly that they’re incapable of normal conversation. They are stuck in limbo, mourning an absence they can’t confirm and don’t have the strength to fully acknowledge.
Only once they’ve left does the gardener realize that their son is the young man who lives next door, who is married to the daughter of the wealthy owner of the estate. When Eugeni dies (unable to take Rosamaria’s rejection, he rows a boat out to sea and is discovered the next day, body bloated and face smashed against the rocks), it’s the gardener that is tasked with informing his parents. But when he arrives at their house in Barcelona, words fail and he’s unable to do so, relegating them to continue living with crippling uncertainty. At every turn, Rodoreda’s characters fail to express themselves, choosing instead to cloister themselves within their individual dramas, and the myriad little miscommunications erode the foundation of life at the villa until it eventually crumbles.
At its simplest, Garden by the Sea is a story of spurned love, shifting sands, and the ways in which idleness and inaction can come to define a life. The gardener seems affectless — rarely does he act on the information he learns, and he narrates with what may seem to be a monotone blankness. However, there’s a carefully-rendered pain behind his observations, indicated in the way his life has stagnated almost to the point of paralysis: “There were plants I should have already replaced, but I must have lacked the energy. I would say to myself: You’ll do it tomorrow. But it was never the right moment. Mostly I wanted to stop thinking. I wanted to listen instead to the rustling of the leaves and, even more, to the sound of the rain on the roof as I was falling asleep” (191).
Tennant and Relaño, a mother-daughter team, are careful to preserve the rhythmic quality of Rodoreda’s writing, which draws the reader in and implores her to dig beneath the surface of Rodoreda’s seemingly straightforward assertions, because it’s in the space between idle days that the drama plays out. Rodoreda is practiced at speaking in code — she wrote Garden by the Sea after leaving Barcelona during Franco’s rise to power, in exile from her outlawed native language. The Catalan story, and the story of its literary tradition, is unavoidably marked by linguistic repression and interruption — it isn’t linear, and neither are Rodoreda’s narratives. As such, she writes stories in which astute narrators stumble upon meaning as if by accident, letting their discoveries pass without being dwelled upon by remarkably unselfconscious prose. Her characters, unaccustomed to both agency and self-reflection, are wholly unable to say what they mean, which causes massive and sometimes fatal failures of communication.
But none of this is conveyed overtly. Instead, the gardener wills time to pass as he fiddles with his radio. The excesses of the elite parties held in the gardens wreak havoc on his flowerbeds. He finds the newly-planted buds ruined, and slowly lowers himself to the ground to dig his fingers in the earth: “My job, as usual, would be to fix what a bunch of idlers had ruined” (110).
Rodoreda, Mercè. Garden by the Sea. Translated by Martha Tennant and Maruxa Relaño. Open Letter, 2020.
Eva Dunsky is an MFA candidate at Columbia University studying fiction and translation. She translates from Spanish and Catalan into English, and also teaches University Writing to undergraduate students. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Columbia Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Vol 1. Brooklyn, among others.