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.

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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?