Mercè Rodoreda: Jardí vora el mar – The Garden Above the Sea (1967)

Jardì vora el mar

Mercè Rodoreda was a Spanish writer who wrote in Catalan. She’s most famous for her novel La plaça del diamant – In Diamond Square – (also The Time of the Doves). I’ve had that for ages but when I came across the German translation of Jardí vora el mar (The Garden Above the Sea), I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately it hasn’t been translated into English.

The story is set in Spain, in the 20s of the last century. The narrator of the story is a gardener. He’s a widower and has been in charge for the garden that belongs to a villa above the sea since decades, even before the current owners spent their summer vacations in the villa. The story spans six summers, summers that change from playfulness and enjoyment to drama and tragedy. Our narrator is not only a silent witness, he’s drawn into the story as the occupants of the villa treat him like a confidante. During the first year, when the young couple, Rosamaria and Francesc, and their friends spend their first summer at the villa, things seem perfect. The young people are beautiful, rich, joyful. They swim, they party, they tease each other. The gardener watches and listens. At night he refuels in his garden. He listens to the plants breathe, enjoys the scents and colors, cherishes the loneliness.

He loves to watch the young people. He has his favourites. There’s Feliu the painter who only paints the sea. Sebastia who travels in Africa and brings back a lion and a monkey. The summer when the mischievous monkey is at the villa, is by far one of the most entertaining, but some darkness already manifests. It is the summer of the monkey, but also the summer in which the construction of the neighbouring villa begins. At the end of that summer, the monkey goes missing and the young people at the villa feel like it was the last perfect summer. They already know that the villa next doors will be even bigger and more glamorous than their own.

The following summer, the new neighbours move in, and the tragedy unfolds. The past has come back to haunt Rosamaria and Francesc.

In the afterword the novel is compared to Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis and to The Great Gatsby. There are similarities but it might be especially interesting to point out the differences. The three novels are told by a narrator who is an outsider but while the narrators in Fitzgerald’s and Bassani’s novels circle the orbit of the rich and famous, they are still guests and allowed to take part, while the gardener is distinctly removed. All three books mourn also the end of an era. The Great Gatsby and The Garden Above the Sea are set in the 1920s, while Bassani’s book takes place in the 40s.  The Finzi Contini are Jewish. Needless to say how the story will end. Gardens and houses are important in the three novels but nowhere is the garden as much a character as in Rodoreda’s novel. The afterword tells us that the author was a passionate gardener and we can feel that. The descriptions of the flowers, trees, and bushes, their changes through the seasons, the difficulties to grow them are described with so much love, only someone who loves plants could have achieved that. I’ve come across many novels, in which houses are like characters, but I’ don’t think I’ve come across many, in which the garden played such an important role. Not even Bassani’s novel.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is easily one of my top ten favourite novels. I also love The Great Gatsby. I enjoyed Rodoreda’s book a great deal, but I only loved the descriptions of the garden. In choosing a gardener as her narrator, as wonderful a character as he may be, we stay much more spectators of the characters, are never fully immersed. We only see what they do when they are outside; we never see them interacting inside of the house. Most of the things we learn, are things the gardener himself was told by someone who heard it from someone. Seeing characters from afar, doesn’t allow to get as close to them as we would wish. Plus, the main protagonists change. Every summer, someone else gets close to the gardener, visits him in his small house. Those are the most intimate moments in the book, the ones, other than the descriptions of the garden, that I enjoyed the most. It’s not always good to compare a book with such famous novels as The Great Gatsby or The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but in this case it helped me understand, why Rodoreda’s book left me a little cold, although it’s a fantastic book that I might even re-read some day.

The review is part of Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month.

Federico García Lorca: The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba (1936) – A Play

The House of Bernarda Alba

I’ve read many French and German plays, some British, American, and Russian ones, but only one or two of Spanish origin. Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Literature Month seemed like a good opportunity to change this and I decided to read The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca’s last play, which he completed just before being murdered by Nationalists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba is set in a village in Spain in the house of the widow Bernarda Alba. Her second husband has just been buried and she decides to close down the house  and impose an eight-year-long mourning period. This means that her five unmarried daughters will lose their freedom and live a secluded life for the next eight years. Bernarda Alba is a joyless tyrant, a crushing, sadistic mother, who uses her Catholic faith as a means to domineer and abuse her daughters. The oldest, Angustias, is already 39 and still not married. She’s the only one from Bernarda’s first husband and has inherited a fortune, while the other four, ranging in age from 20 to 30, are left almost destitute. The two youngest, Adela and Martirio, are both in love with the same man, Pepe el Romano. Pepe seems to be in love with Adela, the only pretty one among the five  daughters. Martirio is jealous and full of hatred. Unfortunately the scheming Bernarda has arranged that Pepe will marry the rich Angustias. As is to be expected the play ends in tragedy.

It’s stifling hot in the play and the heat works as a brilliant metaphor for repressed anger, suppressed desires, sexual frustration, and passions running amok. It enhances the sense of oppression and suffocation the women experience. An eerie element comes from the fact that everyone spies on everyone else at all times and that they all envy each other for one reason or the other. It’s a play that can easily be read as a metaphor for a totalitarian regime. But it’s also an illustration of the crushing power of the Catholic faith and how it can be abused by a sadistic and frustrated person.

This is an amazing play. The dialog is concise and pithy, consisting mostly of short repartees. The only exceptions are the exchanges between Poncia – a servant/confidante – and a maid and between Poncia and Bernarda Alba.

Although men are so important, not one man appears on stage. They are only spoken about and referred to.Browsing on YouTube I saw that a few directors chose to include male actors, which I find very wrong. García Lorca wanted to express something by leaving them out. I wonder why some directors chose to include them? Out of Fear that nobody would want to watch a play with only female actors?

I prefer reading plays but this is one I’d love to see performed. It has been made into a British TV movie (1991), starring Joan Plowright as Poncia, the servant/confidante of Bernarda, who is tied to her mistress by some weird loyalty in which there’s as much obedience as hatred and rebellion. Quite an interesting relationship. I started watching it but this is such a prototypical Spanish play that seeing it performed by British actors was a bit strange. I’ll still watch it some day and  have attached it for those who are interested.

This is my second contribution to Stu‘s and Richard‘s Spanish Literature Month.

Some Plans: Spanish Literature – Japanese Literature and Mary Hocking

Japanese Literature Challenge

I’m not good at sticking to plans and projects these days. Especially not when I add reading lists to my intro posts. That jinxes it every time. Therefore, I’m not going to make the same mistake again and just let you know that I will take part in three events. Maybe these announcements will inspire the one or the other to join as well.

First up is Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Reading Month. I’d never heard of the author, nor was I familiar withHeavenali’s blog before I saw an announcement on Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings. Browsing told me that Mary Hocking is right up my street and I decided, if I can get one of her many novels (many are out of print), I’ll join. So this is the only plan I’m sharing. I’ll be reading Mary Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter.

The Very Dead of Winter

Here’s the blurb

This is a portrait of a family forced to confront the grievances of their shared past. In the very dead of winter they assemble at a remote country cottage enveloped in snow. Mary Hocking has also written “Good Daughters, Indifferent Heroes”, “Welcome Strangers” and “An Irrelevant Women”.

Should you want to join, there are quite a lot of used copies available. She’s written a lot of books, many of which have been published by Virago and are still in print. You can find a list on Heavenali’s blog.


July is Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog). Two years ago, when they hosted the first Spanish Literature Month I had some wonderful plans and failed miserably. This year it should be different. I’ve been collecting books for the event, the general direction might be crime, but I’ll decide what I’ll read spontaneously.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Month 8 has started on the first of June and runs until the end of January 2015. On Bellezza’s blog you’ll find reading suggestions and links to the review site. This year I will read whatever I like, without taking into consideration whether or not the book has been translated into English. Hopefully I’ll be in the mood for something that has been widely transalated.

Will you participate in any of these events?

On Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life – La vida breve (1950)

Picture a lazy summer afternoon. The heat is unbearable. You’re in a room with the blinds half down, lying on a bed listening to the voices of complete strangers in the apartment next door. You’re in a languid dreamy mood. Your imagination starts to invent a story based on the snippets of the conversation you hear.  After a while the lives next door seem more real than your own.

Many of the chapters in Juan Carlos Onetti’s famous novel A Brief Life capture this type of mood, describe inertia paired with a vividly active imagination. I liked this, because I like those motionless summer afternoons spend lazily doing nothing else but day-dreaming. I liked the languid and languorous feeling those chapters conveyed. Seeing the narrator Juan María Brausen captivated by his imagination was appealing but the narrator was not. I hated him big time. I rarely if ever use the word “misogynist” but I felt the narrator was exactly that. His wife has just undergone a mastectomy and the way he thinks about her, her pain, her mutilated body, is unfeeling, self-centered and lacking any kind of empathy. It just annoyed me so much that after 150 pages I stopped reading. Because life is indeed very brief, I decided to abandon this novel.

The novel is well written and parts of it had an atmosphere and a mood I liked a lot but it was also confusing at times. It constantly switches from the narrator’s real life to the invented story about a doctor living in the fictional city Santa María. From there it switches to a third narrative strand showing the narrator inventing himself a double life and visiting the woman, a prostitute, who lives next door.

I suppose if the narrator hadn’t annoyed me so much – and not only because he is misogynistic – I would have finished the book as I found the narrative technique interesting.

I was curious to see whether other people had felt the same and googled “Onetti and misogynist”. I’m not sure why I didn’t trust my own impression but I was relieved to see that it was something critics and readers had commented on very often.

Onetti was a Uruguayan writer. He is famous for his novels and his short stories. I’ve read the collection Tan triste como ella a few years back and liked the melancholic tone. Onetti fled to Spain after having spent 6 months incarcerated in a mental hospital by the military government. Onetti was married 4 times (why did that not surprise me?).

I’ve read Onetti’s novel for Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog). It’s part of a readalong. It will be interesting to see what others thought, if they finished it and how they liked it.

Alvaro Mutis: Amirbar (1990) The Fifth Adventure of Maqroll

And if you want to change your life – for the better – and have never read the Colombian novelist Alvaro Mutis, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. A collection of seven novellas that can be read at a run or singly, it features the greatest rainbow-chaser since Quixote, but a lot sexier and ravenous for both learning and love, not to mention fantastical, doomed schemes to make a pile of loot.

Alvaro Mutis is a Colombian author who lives in Mexico. He is famous for his stories about Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero is composed of seven novels and novellas which can be read as a whole or individually. Each tome is around 120 pages long and they seem to vary greatly in style and narrative technique. Some are like diary entries, others are letters, still others contain more straightforward story telling.  I’ve had  the novella Amirbar, part 5 of Maqroll’s story, on my book piles since years and never got around to reading it. Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu’s (Winstonsdad’s BlogSpanish Literature Month seemed like the perfect time.

Reading Amirbar was an amazing experience. While Mutis is compared to Conrad – although he himself calls Dickens his greatest influence – I felt he was much more like a Latin American Blaise Cendrars. Amirbar reminded me of Cendrars’ amazing book L’or – Gold but is still a very distinct book. It has also something of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights.

All the Maqroll stories are told by a narrator who works for some big corporate company and meets his friend Maqroll in different countries and cities at different times. Maqroll is a mariner and adventurer who travels the world without ever settling down for long. The sea is his chosen home and when he is at land it’s only to make business, most of it either illegal or highly adventurous. Whenever he meets his friend, the narrator, he tells him all of the stories that have happened in the meantime. When they do not meet, he writes long and winding letters all containing fantastic stories as well.

At the beginning of Amirbar, Maqroll and the narrator are in the US. Maqroll is ill and almost dying, he has contracted some tropical fever. The narrator takes care of him and sends him to live with his brother in California for a while. It is there that Maqroll tells them the story of Amirbar – a gold mine.

This is how the novel begins (translation taken from the English version)

Los dias mas insolitos de mi vida los pase en Amirbar” nos cuenta Maqroll el Gaviero. En Amirbar deje  jirones de mi alma y buena parte de la energiaque encendio mi juventud. De  alli descendi tal vez mas sereno, no se, pero cansaado ya para siempre. Lo que uno despues ha sido un sobrevivir en la terca aventura de cada dia. Poca cosa. Ni siquiera el oceano ha logrado restituirme esa vocacion de soñar despierto que agote en Amirbar a cambio de nada.

I spent the strangest days of my life in Amirbar. In Amirbar I left shreds of my soul and most of the energy that fired my youth. Perhaps I came down from there more serene, I don’t know, but I was everlasting weary too. What has happened to me since then has been a matter of simply surviving each day’s difficulties. Trivialities. Not even the ocean could give back to me my vocation for dreaming with my eyes open; I used that up in Amirbar and received nothing in return.”

Maqroll is driven by the urge to find gold, not so much because of its monetary value as we understand but because it symbolizes much more to him. It’s an obsession, a magical metal, something that calls for him from the entrails of the earth in which it is buried. The mine is in the Colombian Andes. He first discovers another one but has to flee it when they find a grave with people who have been murdered by some sort of Military Junta. Finding the skeletons puts them in grave danger. The next mine he explores is Amirbar. The wind in the tunnels systems of the mine seems to have a voice and what it is calling is the word “A-mir-bar” which has a special meaning for Maqroll.

One of the traits of Maqroll is that he has a lover wherever he is. In Amirbar it is Antonia who gets unhealthily attached to him. The relationship between Maqroll and Antonia is one of many small side stories in the book, one of many stories which turn into a desaster. Another important trait is Maqroll’s love of books. He is always reading. Most of the books he reads are obscure historical texts. He loves to immerse himself in another era and read about people who are long gone.

As fantastic as some of the stories sound they are infused with a high dose of realism. Set in a corrupt country, some of the characters are arrested, the gold is confiscated more than once and those who help Maqroll end up in prison and are tortured.

You can easily read Amirbar or any other story on its own but one thing is for sure, it will very probably make you want to read them all. I’ve read a few reviews since I started the book and it seems Amirbar isn’t even the best of the stories. In Maqroll Mutis has created some sort of alter ego, a character who feels so real that in his real life Mutis speaks about him with his friends as if he really existed.

Amirbar is a wonderful book, full of life, stories and tales. Reading it is an adventure in itself. I think it would be an excellent introduction to Latin American literature because despite of its complexity and exuberant story telling it is a very accessible, entertaining book.

Amirbar is a contribution Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month.

Spanish Literature Month – July 2012

There have been requests last year and then a rumour started to spread and now it’s official: July is Spanish Literature Month. Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog) and Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) who co-host this event have organized a watchalong (Carlos Saura) and two readalongs (Juan Carlos Onetti A Brief Life and Enrique Vila-Matas Bartleby and Co.) but if you cannot make them you are free to choose whatever you like. If you want to join, just leave a comment at one of the two blogs. Here’s Stu’s intro post and here the one by Richard.

As you can see I have an idea what I would like to read. Since I may not be able to read a lot, I want at least to read one of the books I have in Spanish. A few years back I bought Un mundo para Julius by Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique. I like books about the end of an era. They are usually lyrical, nostalgic and melancholic. This seems to be no exception.

It has been translated into English as A World for Julius.

Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome.” Life-size Disney characters and cowboy movie heroes romp across the walls of his nursery. Out in the carriage house, his great-grandfather’s ornate, moldering carriage takes him on imaginary adventures. But Julius’s father is dead, and his beautiful young mother passes through her children’s lives like an ephemeral shooting star. Despite the soft shelter of family and money, hard realities overshadow Julius’s expanding world, just as the rugged Andes loom over his home in Lima. This lyrical, richly textured novel, first published in 1970 as Un mundo para Julius, opens new territory in Latin American literature with its focus on the social elite of Peru. A member of that elite, Bryce Echenique incisively charts the decline of an influential, centuries-old aristocratic family who becomes nouveaux riches with the invasion of foreign capital in the 1950s. A World for Julius, his first novel, marks the first appearance in English of this important Peruvian writer, whose Latin American postmodern fiction has won critical acclaim throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

I may end up reading something less challenging in terms of pages. Two authors I like a lot are Almudena Grandes from Spain and Maria Luisa Bombal from Chile. I still have some of their books I have not read.

Product Details

The crime novels by Teresa Solana A Not So Perfect Crime and A Shortcut to Paradise are possible choices as well.

Or another Peruvian author. I just recently got Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes – Lituma en los Andes.

Set in an isolated, run down community in the Peruvian Andes, Vargas Llosa’s riveting novel tells the story of a series of mysterious disappearances involving the Shining Path guerrillas and a local couple performing cannibalistic sacrifices with strange similarities to the Dionysian rituals of ancient Greece. Part-detective novel and part-political allegory, it offers a panoramic view of Peruvian society; not only of the current political violence and social upheaval, but also of the country’s past, and its connection to Indian culture and to pre-Hispanic mysticism.

I have read Juan Carlos Onetti before and liked him very much. To make sure that I really read at least something, I will join the readalong of A Brief Life. The details can be found on Richard’s and Stu’s blog.

I could suggest some other books but I think Stu and Richard are doing a great job at pointing out books you should discover.

Are you joining as well? What are you going to read? Do you have favourites of Latin American and Spanish literature?