From the Garden of Delights

In literature, the garden, which is often a form of nostalgia, has a central place. From the beginning, just after the expulsion from paradise, the garden -even for Voltaire, so skeptical, gives a meaning to the characters’ life, which is also ours. Whether it is in Chekhov, Kafka or Giorgio Bassani, writing is a way to explore the old, lost garden.

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would have liked to wander through the garden of the Finzi-Contini. In fact, it was rather a park, since it covered ten hectares and contained lime trees, elms, beechs, poplars, London planes, horse-chestnuts, pine trees, firs, larch, cedars of Lebanon, cypresses, holm oaks, holly trees, palm trees, eucalyptus… In the prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, Giorgio Bassani explains that, at the end of the Second World War, all those trees were chopped down to make firewood, so when the narrator and Micòl walk there, we already know that such God’s good is doomed to disappear. It is not very different from what happens in the cherry orchard of the homonymous work by Chekhov: beautiful and evocative, but scarcely productive, destined to be replaced by summer houses. In the end, the spectators feel the noise of the ax that begins to cut the trees: another memory of what it was and is no longer. When Micòl studies in Venice, the narrator evokes the afternoons that happened in the Finzi-Contini garden playing tennis or walking under the trees. He feels, he says, expelled from paradise. Indeed, paradise was our first garden -lost in the distant times of Genesis- that we can only evoke with melancholy. The beauty and the utility arranged, since “Yahweh made all kinds of trees grow from the earth, made them good looking and good to eat”. It was not necessary to work in that garden -and orchard- of delights, and we had the opportunity to talk with God.

Even a man so little suspicious of religious tendencies as Voltaire, at the end of his Candide, suggests that we cultivate our garden. And yet, it is hard to imagine an intellectual like him digging with the hoe or taking weeds off. Also, it’s hard to imagine Kafka working in the orchard, and yet Reiner Stach, in his voluminous biography, informs us that in the spring of 1913, just as he dreams and at the same time fears his marriage to Felice Bauer, Kafka moves to the periphery of Prague to work in the afternoons in a garden on the side of the Nusle. In that suburb of people with few resources, nobody speaks German and nobody knows him. We understand that there, conversing with strangers with the shovel in hand, Kafka forgets about his doubts and his obsessions.

Also, in the garden that cultivates the Beast we can guess the delicacy with which he will seduce the Beauty. In the depths of the garden a deep truth is hidden. Jerzy Kosinski, in the novel Being there portrays the social ascension of an illiterate gardener who only knows sentences about flowers and seasons, sentences that his interlocutors interpret as transcendental metaphors. “Not one single thought spurred Chance’s mind. Peace ruled his heart”. Between idiocy and holiness, the protagonist becomes a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States. Rudyard Kipling, author of memorable pages about the jungle, has a story titled The gardener who tells a woman’s visit to the cemetery where her nephew rests, killed on the battlefield. Since she does not find the grave, a providential gardener shows her the way. The story ends with this enigmatic phrase: “And he left, leaving her convinced that he was the gardener”.

We go back to Chekhov. Biographer Rosamund Bartlett explains that in his Melikhovo house the writer planted sixty cherry trees of the Vladimir variety, which gives large, sweet and intense red fruits. “The only thing I do is to walk in the garden eating cherries,” he wrote in 1897. Two years later, the farm would be sold to a wooden merchant who soon chopped them. Maybe when we walk through our garden, hortus conclusus, wasting time as we contemplate how flowers open up and fruits grow, it is when we look more like God.

At the beginning of the narration Steppe, from Chekhov himself, the young character named Igor passes with a carriage in front of the cemetery: “Green and pleasant, surrounded by a stone fence on which stand, scattered among the greenery of the cherry trees, crosses and pantheons that, seen from far, are just white clays”. After that, a symphony of colors is deployed: “Igor remembers that, in the spring, those white spots were mistaken for the cherry blossoms, and they made like a sea of alabaster; and when the fruit ripened, the pantheons and crosses seemed to be dotted with purple spikes, such as coagulated blood”. But, “on the other side of the fence, in the shade of the cherry trees, his father and his grandmother Zinaïda Danílovna slept night and day”. Childhood and graves, flowering and cemetery… Here’s how Chekhov’s cherry trees bond life and death, just like in The Cherry Orchard tragedy and comedy are bonded. Tragedy is remembering that we were expelled from paradise, comedy is what we do to forget it.