Aamer Hussein reviews Land of Smoke by Sara Gallardo

Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira (Pushkin Press, 2018)

On a January afternoon in London, a reader comes upon a translated collection of stories by an almost-forgotten Argentinian woman writer. He realises he doesn’t have his spectacles with him. Nevertheless, he begins to read the book on his way home. He decides he must read her fictions in their original Spanish, which he finally locates in the university library. But he has to travel to a distant place, and when he returns he finds the university is surrounded by strikers and protesters, and he doesn’t want to cross a picket line.

This is a trope that might well have appealed to Sara Gallardo, and I wonder how, with her flair for the unexpected turn, she’d have concluded the tale. But it’s actually an account of my own encounter with Gallardo’s stories, and my inability to find them in Spanish in time to write this piece about her work in translation. Well, I think as I sit down to write: I’ve read Tanizaki and Kleist and even the One Thousand and One Nights in translation, so why not Gallardo? And translator Jessica Sequeira has made a fine rendition of this collection, with its several sections loosely linked by theme or motif, and its dazzling switches of narrative mode.

Sara Gallardo Drago Mitre was born in Buenos Aires in 1931; she was from a privileged line of landowners and was the statesman Bartolomé Mitre’s great-great-granddaughter. She started publishing in her teens. After the death of her second husband, the poet H. A. Murena, in 1975, she moved to Spain, and, in 1979, wrote her last book, La rosa en el viento. She died in Argentina at the age of fifty-six.

Literary lore tells us that El país del humo (Land of Smoke), the complex and multilayered collection that introduces her for the first time to an anglophone audience, reads as if it were compiled from a lifetime’s work; but, first published in 1977, it is also said to have emerged after the suicide of Gallardo’s husband. Though it bears several signs of loss and mourning, there is almost nothing here of personal overflow: grief is turned into metaphor and is only one of the several aspects of the human (and animal) condition the author evokes: violence, war, massacres; desire, exile, remorse, and, most compellingly, lack of fulfilment and the half-lives so many of us live.

In one of her stories, “A New Science,” Gallardo refers to a fellow Argentinian author, Silvina Ocampo, and the publication of her Epitaphs for Twelve Chinese Clouds in 1942. (Gallardo is often compared to Ocampo, along with Lispector, but comparisons with Borges and Cortázar are just as appropriate; in rugged stories, such as the title piece, set in the mountain ranges of the Andes, Juan Rulfo also comes to mind. And Gallardo was a generation, or in Ocampo’s case two, younger than them all.) But the story focuses not on Ocampo or her texts, but on Arturo Manteiga, a linotypist who studies the shape of clouds:

It’s clouds themselves, not the mere factors that form them, that act on the collective events of humanity. They combine them, decide them, precipitate them . . . it’s true that clouds result from a combination of factors. At the same time, clouds are more than these factors. They possess an essential energy, they make history.

Gallardo’s meticulous returns to the historical moments in which her texts unfold rescues her work from the whimsy which some of her Latin American contemporaries use as a default mode. To return to the story above, for example, the narrative flashes forward to an interview the implied author conducts with another cloud-classifier, Claudio Sánchez, in 1955; and then to the latter’s death in 1975. Towards the end of the story, in a few terse sentences, Gallardo summons up mid-twentieth-century Argentina. The narrator concludes: “Like art, science doesn’t often concern itself with reason.”

Transformed surroundings are often the backdrop of these stories. In “Georgette and the General,” the narrator sees an Eden which is later made into a desert. After the eponymous Frenchwoman is brought to a stately white house by a general, she continues to haunt it from her grave while different regimes come and go, until a mass for the dead and the living allows her to “enter peace,” and the haunted paradise abandons itself. And in the piercingly beautiful “Things Happen,” a pensioner finds himself and the garden carried away by the sea, until:

One day he saw the city of Buenos Aires, wrapped in fog. Chimneys as tall as young girls scattered their smoke messages zigzagging into the fog. A smell of putrefaction, and the city with lit-up buildings was waking, coated in pink . . . of course he cried.

There’s a brief section in the book called “Tasks,” in which, in her characteristic fashion, Gallardo picks up one of her preoccupations from preceding sections: the tasks, often almost Sisyphean, with which we, willingly or by happenstance, occupy our lives. Some of the stories, which span the centuries, are less than a page long, such as the poignant and emblematic “White Flowers:” Juan, whose mother dies just after his birth, is poor; though beautiful, he is considered an idiot. In his old age, working in a parking garage, which he does with care like he does everything, he dies one night, “[s]oftly, in spite of the rain.”

Along with violence and melancholy there’s humour here as well. In “The Caste of the Sun,” a soothsayer has an enigmatic relationship with her sorrel horse, who provides her with hair from his tail for her blonde wig, and very possibly with good counsel too. An entire section deals with animal stories: cats, rats, and, notably, horses. Among them is a prose poem about a lawn, which is cut down one day to clear the way for a king’s visit. But here, too, there’s an epiphany to be found; the dying grass sings of trains, autumn, ice cream and coffee vendors, children, smoke, and rain, echoes of images from other stories.

The very short story, at which Gallardo excels, is a gift to the poet as it makes no necessary demands of narrative muscle (though there is evidence of that, too). However, the longer pieces in the book may raise caveats from lovers of storytelling. The lyrical “The Thirty-three Wives of the Emperor Blue Stone,” narrated by one of these wives, may be compared to the fairy tales of Angela Carter and Leonora Carrington. It blurs the boundary between prose and verse, often veering towards the latter:

I gave myself up to mystery.
What was it?
A path of darkness
To a land that does not exist.
I am faithful. I persevere.

But in this story the reader might well feel, after a twenty-page journey, deprived of the conventional satisfactions that parts of the narration, and its Perrault-like title, promise. Similarly, the long tale “Erik Gunnardsen,” embedded in “Daggers,” which announces itself as the book’s most overtly melodramatic section, ends with a shocking death for which the enigmatic, stately pace of the story, which appears like a series of pastel tableaux, does little to prepare us. (I have often heard the same criticism levelled at Lydia Davis.) Such feelings of disorientation may well be what Gallardo deliberately attempts to elicit. But there are times, as in this story, when the reader has the feeling of being lost in a vaguely nightmarish dream that doesn’t quite reveal the reason for its own menace.

Such caveats are inevitable, though, in a collection of this length—nearly three hundred pages and almost fifty texts. There are moments when the reader might wish that some of its sections might have been separately published. But it was evidently the author’s intent to create her own variant of a many-voiced ocean of stories in the manner of the ancients, with facets that echo, reflect, and collide with each other. It’s a massively ambitious, and often successful, task. No one is, after all, under compulsion to read the whole book in one go, though each sequence is probably intended to cohere within itself.  

Not surprisingly, for a collection which centres on the isolated, the fanatical, or the obsessed, the ultimate section is entitled “Exiles.” Gallardo is concerned less with the literal meaning of the term than with varieties of homecoming, as in the exquisite “Reflection on the Water.” Here Elvira Cabrini, after the loss of her only son and her last lover, realises that:

the heart is like a glass, and that when bitterness fills it to the brim, it overflows in tears.

And yet this octogenarian prays for, and is granted, a last gift of joy before dying:

Love burned within her once again.
While he was bathing she went for a walk. She looked at the low clouds like the bellies of marvellous birds brooding over the egg-shaped lake.
The world revealed itself to her once more.