In ‘Learning to talk to plants’, grief and loss are anything but grandiloquent

Marta Orriols on her widely acclaimed novel, representing Catalan literature abroad, and book recommendations for Sant Jordi

The Catalan writer Marta Orriols, on October 6, 2020 (by Pere Francesch)
The Catalan writer Marta Orriols, on October 6, 2020 (by Pere Francesch) / Alan Ruiz Terol

Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

April 17, 2021 05:56 PM

Marta Orriols doesn’t talk to plants, and neither does Paula, the main character of the widely acclaimed novel that turned Orriols into a household name in contemporary Catalan literature. 

Published in 2018, 'Aprendre a parlar amb les plantes' (translated as 'Learning to Talk to Plants') tells the story of unexpected loss and how a 40-year-old neonatologist must cope with grief while navigating through bustling Barcelona life. 

"She must learn to do what plants do in real life, to set roots, go to the light, and open up to other people," Orriols said in an interview with Catalan News.

Orriols (Sabadell, 1975) is an Art Historian and published her first book in 2016, 'Anatomia de les distàncies curtes' (Anatomy of short distances). Two years later, she achieved widespread popularity with 'Learning to Talk to Plants', won the Òmnium award for the Best Novel of the year, and had her novel translated into several languages. Her latest book, published in 2020, is Dolça introducció al caos (Sweet introduction to chaos).

Learning to talk to plants was a big success. How does it make you feel?

It was quite a surprise that so many people enjoyed reading a book about death and grief. I thought everyone would get depressed, but then I realized that the same need I had to write about these feelings, which are very profound, feelings that are difficult to find the words to describe; this necessity that I had, the readers also had. It's not a book that treats death and grief as something grandiloquent, it's a very mundane thing.

The book has been translated into several languages, including English. Have non-Catalan readers also connected with the story?

Yes, I went to several book clubs. It’s interesting because I tried to reflect my own world, my surroundings, my life in Barcelona, and sometimes you may think that the local things may be difficult for people from other countries to understand. But the nice thing about literature is that readers take universal feelings, and then a book can be understood by people from any culture, anywhere. I remember attending a very interesting book club at a university in London, and all the questions I had were the same as the ones I had with Catalan readers. One of the book’s ideas is that death is something unique, the experience of losing someone is something unique, but at the same time, the feeling is really universal, so it's nice to see that what you can explain here can also touch readers from somewhere else.

What role does Barcelona play in the story?

Barcelona is always a very important place for action. The same story, the story of someone who is suddenly alone, would be really different in a rural place, where death is probably understood differently. In a big city, you're surrounded by a lot of people, but you feel really alone because you go out to the street and life goes on, there are buses, children go to school, it's noisy, life continues and you're stuck in a kind of parenthesis. You find yourself alone in front of a mirror and say, what do I do with my life from now on? Paula finds herself stuck there and suddenly she doesn't belong in that place where life is so evident.