The Secret Gardens of Mogador
by Alberto Ruy-Sánchez
translated from the Spanish by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan
White Pine Press, 2009, 188 pp.
Going to bed each night with The Secret Gardens of Mogador is like going to bed each night with a lover. The pages of Alberto Ruy-Sanchez’s most recent book to be translated into English drip with sensuality, wooing the reader into a story and a land of subdued, carnal rapture. Not that each page carries a lurid lovemaking scene or portraits of nudity (though the cover and accompanying illustrations reveal a nude, statuesque beauty). Rather, the various tales within this novella portray eroticism as if it were a second language, or a sixth sense; eroticism is just an everyday part of living, like breathing.
From the cover emblazoned with a scintillating muse onward, The Secret Gardens oozes with passion. The opening page jumps right into bed: lovers rouse, “their dreams still entangled between their legs,” and then they make love. At the recent PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City,1 Ruy-Sánchez stood before a rapt audience and admitted he spent four years interviewing women about their various sexual desires before penning this book. The man did his research, and it shows:
Her skin was more sensitive in the most unexpected zones of her body, as if the sense of touch had decided to dominate the others, and the crawling ant igniting the lips of her sex had continued its secret journey, descending suddenly toward her knees. Waves of desire traversed her, up and down, from her belly to her back.
Yet all of this gushing on the author’s ability to arouse says nothing of the story itself. The Secret Gardens of Mogador, lucidly translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, is the story of man under the spell of the alluring enchantress Hassiba. “Her very name was the resonant whisper of an incantation: Hassiba. Resembling a light touch, a laceration at the beginning of the word that becomes labial, almost suggesting a kiss in its final two letters.” They are lovers, but he cannot meet her needs and desires. The mysterious woman sends him on a quest through the semi-mythical town of Mogador in search of the city’s various gardens. Each night he, in a modern twist on the role of Scheherazade, must return home and tell the tale of his latest verdant finding, “each a unique tribute to the cultivation of passion and desire.” Only after he learns the mysterious ways of nature and desire can he win her over.
Mogador, (or Mogadore, or Mugadi), is an actual place in Western Morocco, and if it’s anything like it is described in The Secret Gardens, make it your next vacation destination (when you arrive, look for the girl in the market with a handful of flower petals). It may be a real city, and Ruy-Sánchez might have based his descriptions on actual visits, but to the reader it will seem mythical, with hints of the flavors of Mexico, Riyadh, and Baghdad thrown in for good measure. Ruy-Sánchez’s Mogador ultimately exists on a sensual plane rarely visited by mere mortals.
Spaces are liminal—we rarely see beyond the purview of the main characters. Just about everything is immediate: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the passion. Landscapes are mists. The constraint of the immediate orbits of the narrator and Hassiba force another level of intimacy between the reader, the characters, and their story.
Nature is heightened and often personified just as much as sensuality is elevated. Sunlight becomes a minor character, shouting, kissing, and caressing. The sun becomes a great lover, too, stroking Hassiba “ever so lightly with its radiant fingers.” In Mogador, flowers clamor for the presence of people. In one of the narrator’s recollections of a garden visit, “The Minimal Garden of Stones in the Wind,” a wind chime is created with pipes and stones: “The distance between each stone is enough for the wind to move them so that they strike each other, producing strange music. It is like a field of fragile flowers stirred by the wind.”
For me, the image of hard stones as fragile as flowers immediately recalled the multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist’s 1997 film “Ever is Over All,” in which a woman joyously breaks car windows with a flower. That, I suppose, is the magic of Mogador and of Ruy-Sánchez—the events in The Secret Gardens take us to fantastical experiences in our mind that have already happened, or that, no matter how imaginative, could happen. We are always left wanting and dreaming of more.
The sun also becomes a great gardener, but not the only one active in Mogador, for as the narrator begins to explore the various secret botanical enclaves of the ancient town, the gardener and the garden working together (becoming one) reveals itself as a theme. In various tales about gardens and groves the caretaker is a “master artist” or “patient, intelligent, and bold,” whose passionate devotion to their landscapes is the same as those of the dedication between celebrated lovers. Hassiba, too, is an impassioned devotee of the plants in her life.
But what of the narrator’s tales? What of his nightly adventures to and reports from the myriad gardens of Mogador? After the narrator embarks on this daily quest, a certain sense of foreboding simmers below the surface. There are uneasy indications that by the time we reach the last page the simmer will have reached full boil, that the worst has come of Hassiba, and that she will no longer be with her lover, or with us. This sense that something is about to happen around every corner unwittingly provides a melancholic underpinning to the novel. It does not help that from time to time throughout the tales we are told that one day Hassiba “said” this, or that another time Hassiba “went” somewhere. Suddenly and sporadically Hasssiba has gone from being a part of our present to occupying a space in the past. It is unsettling.
This change of voice may be the fault of the translator, but I doubt it. The rest of Buchanan’s translation seems so precise and inviting that such a blatant oversight is unlikely. Instead, the confusion may reveal the one flaw of the novella, if it can even be called such: soon after the narrator begins his quest to discover and re-tell his adventures of Mogador’s gardens, the voice seems to shift from the protagonist to the author himself. The tales “The Andalusi Palm Grove of Longing,” and then “The Garden of Traveling Cacti” to the very end (about twelve tales) seem to be the voice of Ruy-Sánchez. In other words, it is as if he were recalling his own travels throughout Mogador (and its various incarnations), rather than the narrator’s wanderings, only to come back to the storyline at the end of each account, and thus at the end of the book. But who can tell for sure? As mentioned already, Mogador seems to be more of a place of fantasy than reality.
Still, we read on, for the narrator is challenged to be the male Scheherazade. And he doesn’t disappoint. With tales of gardens in tiles, henna tattoos, palm groves, destroyed gardens, gardens of wind, fire, water, and more, we are delighted time and again by the sights and sounds of Mogador. Inasmuch, Ruy-Sánchez reveals himself to be a talented storyteller, one full of surprises, all told with language so floral and sensuous you can’t help but want to read The Secret Gardens aloud to your lover. It is a testament to the translator as well, that even through translation the language is as explicit and arousing as it surely is in the original Spanish. To wit:
That is how I feel as I pursue you, erecting a tower toward the sky, pausing and enjoying each instant as I reach your dewy point, which always, gently, arouses me.
In the end, The Secret Gardens of Mogador proves to be nothing short of a sensual feast. From the cover to the whispers of sex to the elegantly designed Arabic calligraphy (by Hassan Massoudy) throughout, Ruy-Sánchez’s work is scintillating. Thank goodness he spent four years researching his material. The results are sure to stir passion in both sexes.
1. See Shaun Randol's report from the festival's opening night extravaganza here.