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
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.
"I don't know if I'm the best author to represent Catalan literature. There are a lot of good Catalan authors that are not being translated and who are doing very important things"
Marta Orriols · Catalan writer
It’s still rare for a Catalan author to be translated into other languages, let alone more than a dozen. How does it make you feel?
It's a great opportunity. It's not every day that Catalan literature travels beyond Spain—even within Spain, it’s difficult for a Catalan author to promote their work. But it’s also a big responsibility because in a way you're representing something. I don't know if I'm the best author to represent Catalan literature. There are a lot of good Catalan authors that are not being translated and who are doing very important things.
Mara Faye Lethem has also translated the works of other Catalan writers, such as Jaume Cabré, Juan Marsé or Albert Sánchez Piñol, into English. Are you happy with her work?
When I read her translation I was impressed. She’s an American who’s been living in Barcelona for a long time and speaks perfect Catalan. And she captured the exact tone of my character. For instance, the Spanish translation I did myself, because I thought I could do it, but then I realized that I wasn't a translator. The character was slightly different: there was a Paula in Catalan, and another Paula in Spanish who was not the same woman. But when I read the English version, I thought: that's Paula!
What’s your opinion of the Catalan publishing industry?
I'm not an expert, but I think that for years, the Catalan publishing market was very much limited to big publishing houses that had been here forever and only published big names. But suddenly, a decade ago, there was a burst of little independent publishing houses, and I think that the market has opened to new possibilities for Catalan authors. There are more doors where you can knock and say: Hello, I’m a Catalan author.
Catalonia is celebrating Sant Jordi on April 23rd. Any book recommendations by Catalan authors that have been translated into English?
Mercè Rodoreda, who is known internationally. A few months ago, they published Death in Spring, it’s a beautiful edition and I recommend it highly. Rodoreda is the best Catalan author ever. She talks about big things, like our fears, war, the post-war, but she does it in a simple way, and that’s not easy to do. To readers, it’s very touching. It’s wonderful. Of course I admire her and would love to write like Mercè Rodoreda, but that’s impossible. She has a very magnetic and specific style; you can’t copy it, because it would be ridiculous. But in a way, when writing, I try to copy the feeling I get from reading her.