The History of Violets is a book to read at dusk, when the light changes, the room darkens and the boundaries between day and night, real and fantastic, seem permeable. First published in Spanish in 1965, Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio's collection of short prose poems, as translated into English by Jeannine Marie Pitas, is a voyage into a garden world populated not only by exquisite flowers and hearty vegetables, but also angels, underground creatures and rabbits, figures both tragic and destructive. Throughout the book, we follow a family living by the garden, whose house is often invaded by its denizens, whether it is the insistent angels or the crazy gladioli. Di Giorgio's own particular brand of magical realism and gift for compelling description ease us into this world where the erotic pulse of creation in the garden is counterbalanced by an undercurrent of death and destruction.
Di Giorgio writes, “When I look toward the past, I only see perplexing things: sugar, jasmine, white wine, black wine, the strange country school I attended for four years, murders, weddings among the orange blossoms, incestuous couplings.” Does the protagonist, remembering her childhood, invent this fantastical world, or do the precision of her memories indicate true experiences? Perhaps instead, it is the act of remembering that renders the past magical. Regardless, through her, we experience a peculiar connection to the garden. She seems to understand the garden more than her parents. In “XV,” the speaker is disturbed when her mother allows a buyer to pick mushrooms from the garden. She sees that the mushrooms grow from corpses, are products of their dead relatives: “My mother does not realize that she is selling her race.” Though the narrator's age is indeterminate—“I am always the same child in the shadow of my father's peach trees,” she seems to be on the cusp of her sexual awakening. She watches the cycle of creation in the garden with elation that turns to shame and embarrassment when Mother arrives to tap her on the shoulder (“IV”).
It is unclear whether this “Mother” is the narrator's corporeal mother or if it refers to the Virgin Mary. The History of Violets is full of rather unusual religious imagery. The angels that infest the garden more closely resemble slightly malicious fairies than the traditional Christian angels we usually see. At one point, they drive the narrator and her mother from the house, having stolen their sweet things (honey, sugar, apples) and behaved so mischievously that her mother cannot stand it any longer (“XXX”). Yet these egg-laying angels are explicitly linked to the Virgin and God. An unconventional view of God emerges in the garden, earthy and indifferent, always near.
This type of dynamic, between the humans and their God, seems to fit perfectly with the other interactions in the garden. As beautiful as the inhabitants of the garden are, undercurrents of violence and consumption are always present: “From all directions came butterflies—the most absurd, the most unusual—from the four cardinal points came the forest roosters with their wide wings, their heads of pure gold. (My father dared to kill a few of them and got rich.)” The somewhat sinister underground creatures who attack “the best violet, the one with a grain of salt,” are in turn eaten by the family: “One time, my mother decided to trap one; she killed her, skinned her and put her in the middle of the night, of the meal. And that creature retained a bit of life, an almost unreal death […] We gulped her down, and she was almost alive.” In the same way, the figure of a rabbit first appears as a foreshadowing of violence, of a girl (standing in for a garden plant, perhaps) being attacked and eaten, but it is later the subject of tragedy. The narrator becomes a rabbit, caught and killed by the “guardian of the potatoes.”
The History of Violets is a fascinating blend of beautiful description and disturbing narrative. Di Giorgio's style emerges as precise and haunting in Pitas's skilled translation. The world she creates, with its daisies like “golden rice,” pink gladiolus that will kill, flocks of angels with “wax faces, blue eyes,” and underground creatures with “smooth alabaster faces,” is engrossing and seductively real. As an English-speaking reader, I am grateful to Jeannine Marie Pitas for this opportunity to experience di Giorgio's unique, beautifully-wrought poetry.