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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Garden Next Door

José Donoso

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To purchase The Garden Next Door

Title: The Garden Next Door
Author: José Donoso
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 242 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Garden Next Door - US
El jardín de al lado - US
The Garden Next Door - UK
The Garden Next Door - Canada
Le jardin d'à côté - France
El jardín de al lado - España
  • Spanish title: El jardín de al lado
  • Translated by Hardie St. Martin

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a fine novel of the Latin American 'Boom'-generation writer-in-exile experience, with a wicked twist

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 29/11/1992 Charles Bowden
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/1/1993 Toby Talbot

  From the Reviews:
  • "Donoso's book moves by images more than actions and the images all conjure up the emptiness of modern life (.....) Solutions are systematically rejected: youth culture proves an empty mannerism; literature is both unreachable and unreal; politics are bankrupt; the flesh a fraud betrayed by age; personal integrity a fantasy that cannot be sustained without status and money. (...) He writes very deftly and yet coldly. The novel has a clinical, morning after feel to it. (...) This is not the book for Fidel Castro or Ronald Reagan but it seems appropriate for this weary moment at the end of a bloody century." - Charles Bowden, The Los Angeles Times

  • "This deftly translated roman a clef is primarily about exile (.....) In almost documentary fashion, Mr. Donoso depicts exiles who are torn by eroding political commitment, unable to transmit to their children an identity with their homeland, nostalgic for their native country and yet fearful of going back. But he also relentlessly exposes a writer in his 50's who has lost his bearings and vigor, detailing his bitterness, envy, hypochondria, depression and paralysis -- and, finally, his reconciliation to defeat and failure." - Toby Talbot, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Garden Next Door appears to be yet another story of a writer struggling to write a novel. Actually, Julio Méndez, a Chilean exile living in small town Sitges with his wife, Gloria, has written a novel -- an almost five-hundred page: "luxuriant, self-indulgent, boring novel", as he realizes upon re-reading it. It had been rejected by "Catalan mercenary" literary agent Núria Monclús; as Julio complains: "Núria Monclús's modest role should have been just selling books"; instead, she's the prime mover and maker of the Latin American 'Boom' internationally, agent to all the leading lights. (Núria Monclús is, of course, closely modeled on legendary literary agent Carmen Balcells -- but for all this attack on the literary establishment and its small elite of too-powerful movers and shakers ... she was (indeed, is) also Donoso's agent.) Despite Julio's protestations about her and her ways, he nevertheless is well aware that she is likely his only path to an international breakthrough; he knows just how powerful she is, and, despite his many reservations, is eager to hitch his wagon to her all-powerful train.
       Núria Monclús is hard-nosed, and won't take on a book or author she doesn't believe in (or rather, one she doesn't think she can make money off), but she did take a look at Julio's manuscript in its first incarnation -- and, while she dismissed it, she's also willing to have a look at his re-working of it.
       The Garden Next Door is set seven years after Julio, Gloria, and their then ten-year-old son went into exile -- originally coming to Barcelona, in no small part because of Núria Monclús being there (and, more generally, it being a hub of the Spanish-language literary world), before settling in the less expensive but relatively nearby Sitges. The family is from Chile, and they fled Pinochet; Julio's claim to fame -- and the material for his book -- is the experience of being incarcerated for a few days by the regime -- but, seven years on, that's getting a bit long in the tooth, as even he realizes. He's experiencing:

the feeling that time was passing and my great Chilean experience was receding, made worthless as a source of inspiration by the years. I couldn't adapt my country's sufferings to the demands of literary trends, sponsored by Núria Monclús or, through er, by someone who was using her, someone higher up, more powerful than she, someone behind the strange mafia of literary fashion I wasn't about to defer to. How was I to keep my six days in prison from fading and disappearing when they were the pencil strokes that traced the main features of my identity ? How could I stop something so much a part of me from vanishing into thin air, something all the stronger because it was the first time I had been swept along by the forces of history to form a part of my country's destiny ?
       Julio has become an exile, separated from his country. This separation is even more obvious in his son, Patrick, now seventeen and unlikely ever to return to his homeland. ('Pato' has also pretty much separated from his family, frequently mentioned here but almost entirely out of the picture, off doing his own thing.) Meanwhile, Julio's mother lies dying back in the family home in Chile, wasting away (perhaps a bit too symbolically ?) from anorexia nervosa; Julio can not bring himself to travel back, even to be at her deathbed -- but then, after her death, also refuses to let his brother sell the house, despite the large sum it would bring (and despite the fact that he's unlikely to return there).
       Despite his is increasing disconnection from his country, Julio is also unwilling to let this one story go, his documentary-novel based on his brief incarceration that:
I was sure I could rework into a masterpiece superior to the consumerist literature -- so popular these days -- of false deities like García Márquez, Marcelo Chiriboga, and Carlos Fuentes
       (Marcelo Chiriboga is a fictional Ecuadorian author, invented by Donoso and Fuentes; naturally, he is represented by Núria Monclús. Here he is described as: "the most insultingly famous member of the dubious Boom. His novel La caja sin secreto is like the Bible or Don Quixote, its editions running into millions of copies in every language". The joke has been continued even after Donoso and Fuentes' deaths; Javier Izquierdo's 2016 mockumentary Un secreto en la caja is a profile of the fictional author, while Diego Cornejo Menacho's 2010 novel, Las segundas criaturas also features Chiriboga.)
       Julio is also working on a translation of Middlemarch with Gloria -- "a task that seemed endless but would bring in an assured, if modest sum" -- but it's the novel that really preöccupies him. Not that the work on it goes well .....
       At least Julio and Gloria get to enjoy a change of scenery for the summer: a wealthy friend offers them use of his Madrid apartment for the duration, an offer they happily and readily accept. It has all the comforts -- including being well-stocked with good alcohol -- and looks out over the neighbor's fine garden. The owner of that property is a Duke who: "was one of the richest men in Spain", but now, "in the twilight of a life privileged with little but the mundane" putters around a bit like Candide. While he is not present for the summer, the garden is nevertheless sometimes in use, and Julio does get his voyeur on. This 'garden next door' is an appealing distraction -- the grass does always seem to be greener ... -- but Julio has quite a bit on his mind otherwise, too, from the usual domestic disputes with Gloria to the worries about his mother, wasting away an ocean away, and, above all, the novel that he tries to (re)write.
       For much of the novel, The Garden Next Door is a fairly straightforward novel about the life of the Latin American artist in exile, and, to some extent, the struggle of writing a novel -- about what matters. Julio wants his novel to come from personal experience, but, seven years on, a lot of very different experiences have accumulated, changing perspective and outlook. Could he even convince as the voice of the Chilean victim any longer ? And facing Chile also means facing his failure: the reasons he can't bring himself to return are hardly mainly political any longer -- it's not like he's a wanted man or anything -- but rather:
Without a single book published in Spain, with my tail between my legs, without work, unable to get back into the university I was fired from ? At least in Spain I can hang around publishing houses begging for work ... writing jacket blurbs, translating from English, correcting proofs, barely enough to make ends meet.
       As Julio comes to recognize, his brief prison-experience -- and his clinging to it, in the hopes of fashioning literature out of it -- has become another prison of sorts. He recognizes how much like his father he has become, a one-time congressman who wound up puttering in his own garden, not even keeping up with the news any longer:
His garden was his prison, as my novel is mine, as her depressive state is Gloria's. The secret is that deep down nobody wants to leave his own prison; that's the real nature of our illnesses. There are no solutions.
       Julio's marriage is also a strained one, though the two do stick it out together. Gloria is also an unfulfilled woman. Smart, and from a good home, her parents failed her:
She always claims, and with good reason, that it's the fault of her frivolous parents, who never prepared her for anything, and now she's only a well-to-do Chilean girl who's no longer well-to-do or young; no one ever thought of providing her with the culture or the instruments to help her live in the modern world. "If you'd been a boy I would have sent you to study economics at Harvard or at the London School of Economics," her father used to tell her. "But since you're a girl, why should you study anything ?"
       While Gloria's disappointments and failure are not at the forefront of the novel -- Julio is mostly concerned with his own difficulties and failures --, they do figure prominently, especially late in the story. This is a marriage of two people struggling with not having become the people -- or at least inhabiting the roles (like: 'important Latin American author') -- that they would have seemed to have in them. (This set-up also makes the turn in the novel's surprising conclusion all the more amusing.)
       Julio completes his re-working of his novel, and submits it to Núria Monclús -- who even passes it around to a couple of publishing houses. But it does not go well -- and Núria Monclús is not one to mince words:
No, I have to be frank and tell you that they all thought it was an error of perspective and taste. It seems to me that the other, the first version was better; this one is like it, but hypertrophied, sick, declamatory, shrill.
       Among the other devastating comments: "They say it's pure rhetoric, an imitation of what's fashionable among Latin American writers today".
       This is, obviously, not what Julio was hoping for. He snaps -- opportunistically, trying to salvage what he can in acts of desperation and flight that he must realize can't possibly go well.
       And yet, in the end, all's well after all, after a fashion. If the first five chapters of The Garden Next Door have Julio recounting this difficult summer, and his life as exile and would-be writer, the sixth and final chapter takes a surprising turn. If Julio was perhaps guilty of: "an error of perspective" in the re-writing of his novel, the final chapter offers a course-correction of sorts; it's a clever and amusing shift -- of the very ground beneath us --, making for a nicely satisfying resolution.
       The Garden Next Door is a fine portrait of the Latin American writer in (semi-)exile in Europe -- as many of them were, especially in the 1960s and 70s --, including the difficulties faced by the next generation (their children), growing up at a distance from their supposed homelands. Then Donoso makes a(n in every sense) greater novel out of it with his final twist, that very satisfying resolution.
       (The Garden Next Door is a bit difficult to fully assess without spelling out exactly where the story goes, but that amounts to too great a spoiler for a review, so I'll have to leave it at this.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 December 2020

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The Garden Next Door: Reviews: José Donoso: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author José Donoso lived 1924 to 1996.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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