I hadn’t heard of Magnus Florin’s The Garden before spotting it in the library, but when I slid its small form out from where it was sandwiched on the shelf, its premise intrigued me and I added it to the large pile already finding breathing room in my arms. Florin’s book was first published in Sweden in 1995, and has ‘long been regarded there as a classic of contemporary literature’. The edition which I read, printed by the small press Vagabond Voices in Glasgow, has been translated into English by Harry Watson. Florin’s prose is deemed ‘brave’ and ‘colourful’, and the book is proclaimed as ‘a work of imagination of intrigue, unafraid to question the shape of our world and the roots of existence’.
Before I began, I was expecting to be able to draw some parallels between this and Kristina Carlsson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which was published a couple of years ago by the wonderful Peirene Press. Whilst it deals with different figures – one Charles Darwin, and the other Carl Linnaeus – there are many themes in common, and even the structures share some similarities. The Garden presents a fictionalised account of Linnaeus’ life, the leading figure of the Swedish Enlightenment, whose classifications of plants and animals are still used in biology.
Linnaeus and his scientific counterpart in Sweden, Petrous Arctaedius, ‘imagined everything in the world divided into two halves. The hard things in one half and the soft things in another. The fixed and the moveable. The annual and the perennial. What had no tail and what had a tail. That which was fast and that which was slow. The two-legged and the four-legged’. The pair take a straightforward approach to classification; they decide to simply halve the animals and plants to give one another a pool to work from: ‘Arctaedius took the amphibians, the reptiles, the frogs and toads and the fish. Linnaeus took the birds and the insects, the mammals and the stones. Along with the plants’.
Florin denotes the vast differences between Linnaeus and his gardener, the latter of whom ‘perceives things for what they are in themselves – and for their beauty or usefulness’. The pair ‘often find themselves in dialogue, but rarely understand one another’. For me, the gardener was a shadowy figure; Linnaeus also only came to life in his fictionalised form in the sections in which his young siblings are taken ill, and when he himself is suffering.
Florin’s use of imagery and sense of place are deftly crafted, and there are certainly some lovely ideas here: ‘Linnaeus, awake, steps outside, strolls to his grove. He hangs pairs of green Kungsholm glasses as bells on the branches of an oak, an elm and an ash in order to listen to the jingling caused by the wind when it rises. They are his Aeolian beakers, his mind-harps of glass. But this morning the wind is still, and the bells are motionless’. Watson’s translation is nice and fluid; the prose is intelligent, and the patterns of dialogue interesting. The novella, which runs to just ninety pages, is told in slim fragments, which do not lead seamlessly from one to another. In fact, the overall feel is a little disjointed. Whilst the story which Florin presents is fascinating, especially with its roots in reality, the structure makes it feel too fragmented to connect with. The Garden is an interesting tale, but overall, it is a little underwhelming.