Translated from Catalan Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2020)
The rich have no concern for the poor. Or rather they live in their gilded mansions, eating expensive food, buying designer clothes, and traveling to exotic places, while ignoring the plight of the poor. No, they don’t ignore it, they exacerbate with their laws, their greed, and their selfishness. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In many ways, this quote encapsulates the mindset of wealthy people. They tear through life, splintering anything that gets in their way, ripping apart kindness and decency and taking what they want, regardless of who gets hurt. There are exceptions of course, there always are. Generous and thoughtful rich people exist, but most of them will still look out for themselves before lending hand. Perhaps it’s a consequence of riches and the freedoms they provide. When you have the means to purchase anything you want, I suppose you’re less likely to look at the price tag, the consequences of your actions on others.
While reading Garden By the Sea by Mercè Rodoreda echoes of Fitzgerald rang in my head. Senyoret Francesc and his wife Senyoreta Rosamaria are a wealthy Spanish couple who, along with several friends, spend their summers at their villa on the Sea in the 1920s. They pass the time swimming, playing pranks on each other, and painting, all the while caring little about what goes on beyond their property line. Their lives are comfortable and they seem to have no concerns for anything other than themselves. They appear to live in a bubble and are content in their selfishness. But the bubble is of their own creation, a place for them to retreat after they have inflicted their wills on the world.
Then one summer, a Spaniard who had made his money abroad in the Americas, purchases the plot of land next door. Immediately, he hires workmen to build and it quickly becomes evident to the friends that this new house will be far more opulent than their villa. The construction of the house combined with the friendship that springs up between both parties highlights the depravity of those who have money. On the surface it looks like they are merely having fun. Sparing for who will have the best of everything — better horses, a prettier garden, the bigger parties. But when you peal back the facade, you find the true cost of their entertainment, the pain and suffering they have thrust upon others. And like a stone tossed into the water, the ripples spread, reaching beyond the initial impact.
We, the readers, are privy to the intimate comings and goings of the characters because we observe them through the eyes of a servant. The old widowed gardener narrates the story. He appears unbiased and his innocence, his reluctance to feed into the gossip circulating through the staff, draws the reader. He confides in us and we in turn empathize with his emotional reactions. He tells us, after one ostentatious party, “It pained me to think about the gladiolus and the fate they had met: the whole stretch of garden was ruined. But those who have the money make the rules.” The flowers are, of course, a metaphor. The destruction of the garden, a foreshowing of what’s to come.
Rodoreda’s prose breathes life into her characters and her precise details transport the reader into the garden by the sea. A stillness and calm follows as the narrator comments, “I have always enjoyed walking in the garden at night, to feel it breathe. And when I grew tired I would amble back to my little house, reveling in the peaceful existence of all that was green and filled with color in the light of day.” The peace in the garden contrasts starkly with the tension that builds between neighbors. It’s easy to forget for a moment the drama, the impending conflict, when you are caught up in the writing’s breathless beauty.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in The Story Pub, Ovunque Siamo, River and South Review, Trash Panda Poetry, Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!