The Observing Gardener

Garden by the Sea
By Mercè Rodoreda
203 pp. Open Letter Books. $16.

“Garden by the Sea” reminds me of one of those old European films directed by Fellini or Antonioni.

It’s a glimpse at domestic turmoil raging beneath a pretty surface, a metaphorical hurricane threatening the picturesque house on the seaside, an absurd comedy populated by people who only seem to exist in memories.

Our narrator is employed as a gardener at the aforementioned house, but his real job, it seems, is that of observer.

“I’ve always enjoyed knowing what happens to people. It’s not because I’m garrulous but because I like people, and I was fond of the owners of this house. But all of this happened so long ago that I can no longer recall many of the details. I’m old, and sometimes I get mixed up.”

So opens “Garden by the Sea,” and the entirety of its 203 pages are full of this lighthearted narrator’s observations on the people who come and go over the decades. Unlike those he observes, we know little about the gardener, other than that he’s a widower who has lived on the property since he was a young soldier. We never ever learn his name.

There are numerous comparisons one can draw to a certain American novel you may have heard of by one F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Garden by the Sea” is entirely observed from the POV of its narrator, someone whose own biography takes a backseat to those around him. It’s set in the 1920s and the characters we meet are mostly well-off types who have little idea of the depression, and the civil war, that awaits just around the corner.

Indeed, the only way that it might differ from The Great Gatsby is that it lacks Gatsby, or at least, this Gatsby — coming in halfway through the action as he does and lacking both the charm and the admiration bestowed on him by that book’s narrator, Nick Carraway — is hardly “great,” nor does he deserve to have his time in the title. He’s merely one of the observed, attracting no more attention from our narrator than any of the others he’s observing.

But the feeling I came away with after having finished “Garden by the Sea” was reminiscent of the feeling I had after reading “Gatsby” for the first, second, third, or any of those other times (there were moments, as an English major, when I felt like my professors were unaware of the existence of any other book in the English language, so often would “Gatsby” appear on that semester’s syllabus).

I have absolutely nothing bad to say about “Garden by the Sea” or the wonderful way in which it’s written. Like a long summer day spent lounging at the seaside, it goes down easy. I finished it in an afternoon.

I’d never read Mercè Rodoreda before, nor even heard of her, and I’m thankful to Open Letter Books for allowing English readers to gain the unique, wide-eyed perspective of this locally revered Catalan writer.

“Garden by the Sea” feels like a fantastic introduction to her work.

You can practically feel the sun on your skin as you read, the smell of the breeze wafting through the garden. Like so much great literature, especially from the old world, it’s charming and pleasurable yet somehow sad, a reminder of things you left behind somewhere in the past.

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