The “greening,” one might say, of its stoical (eponymous) protagonist is the gradually flowering theme of this eloquent récit by a young French writer.
The time is the 1670s, the place primarily Louis XIV’s pleasure palace of Versailles—to which the vainglorious monarch repairs frequently to escape from the boredom of ruling and the pressures of successful military campaigns against Holland and Germany. Richaud’s focal character, however, is Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, Steward of the Orchards and Kitchen Gardens: a recluse who seems to have no past, and no present relationships or interests away from his duties, and who is much admired by the grateful king and his retainers for the bountiful products of his horticultural skills. Richaud patiently depicts the gardener’s gradual awakening to his master’s arrogance and self-indulgence, as he forms friendships with long-suffering neighboring peasants, and corresponds with casual acquaintance Philippe de Neuville, a radical critic of the regime’s “spiritual tyranny” and disregard for social equality. La Quintinie’s own radicalization crystallizes at a lavish banquet at Versailles, during which he ruefully observes Louis’s frivolous guests “devouring in minutes what had cost him a lifetime to produce.” The gardener, forced to conclude that his dream of an “enclosed world, yet one without boundaries” will never be realized, undertakes a withdrawal from the unreal world of the court, which assumes richly suggestive symbolic form in the poignant closing pages. Neither the novel’s movement toward stasis nor Richaud’s unfortunate decision to overexplain its meanings detracts significantly from the force of this delicately crafted little allegory: it evokes memories of both Voltaire’s Candide and José Saramago’s teasing parabolic fiction.
One might in fact say that Gardener to the King is the novel Jerzy Kosinski tried—and failed—to write in his leaden Being There. It’s a beautiful piece of work.