Posts Tagged ‘land of smoke’

Land of Smoke

February 5, 2018

It comes as no surprise that the final story in Sara Gallardo’s collection Land of Smoke (the first of her work to appear in English, translated by Jessica Sequeira) is entitled ‘A Loner’:

“The life of a loner is just that: the life of a loner. No one scattered in the multiple existence of family life can imagine the way certain perceptions of the recluse set about crystallising.”

Almost all the stories and sketches which have preceded feature loners of one kind or another. Take, for example, the pensioner in ‘Things Happen’ who finds himself swept out to sea with his house and garden. Or ‘The Man on the Araucaria’ whose home-made wings can only raise him as high as the tree-top. His obsession takes him further and further from others until, in the story’s final, melancholy line we are told:

“He lives amongst the chimneys of a factory. He’s old and eats chocolate.”

Even ‘White Glory’, a horse with “eyes like black diamonds and the head of an archangel” is destined to be solitary:

“Yes, he went about free. But once again he was alone. How alone, and how free.”

Many of Gallerdo’s lonely characters are men, however, in a country where war and violence seem commonplace. In the opening story, ‘On the Mountain’, the narrator, a soldier “left for dead”, is rescued by a man who once belonged to the other side but now lives in a cave in the mountains. The narrator, like his captor / rescuer, is cynical in his view of war:

“They were the maggots that fed on liberty, and vice versa. We were the maggots eating away at the Empire without mercy.”

The man will not talk to him, however, and he fears his “alliance” with “a monster of an unknown species” which also lives on the mountain. The story is suffused with potential violence; a violence which erupts in shorter pieces like ‘Red’ and ‘Even’. In the latter the narrator seeks revenge on life for having killed his son at the age of twenty-two. The landscape of Argentina itself is often violent and inhospitable:

“The Puna is a desert. People in the city like to listen to songs naming it. They don’t know oxygen isn’t breathed there, that water boils cold. Children often die on their way to school.”

In ‘Cristoferos’ a statue –presumably of Christopher Columbus – reflects, “I didn’t know what a sad continent I was inaugurating.” In ‘Georgette and the General’ the house Georgette has so carefully preserved in beautiful order decays:

“The house finally let go. The leaves could move again over the avenues, the gazebo rotted, wasps settled on the chandeliers. The balcony collapsed; it lost its doors. The Eden turned into desert.”

This happens, not on her death, but when her soul is put to rest by a mass. It’s one of a number of stories to feature hauntings, though some are in more unexpected places as in ‘The Case of Mrs Ricci’ where the ghost appears daily at the offices of the Pension Fund. In ‘The Embroiderer’ the title character, executed by the Inquisition, appears only briefly at the end:

“They saw him, luminous, waving like a banner, hands deformed by the needle, black from the fire, throwing out rays of light through the spikes of Christ. The game hunts and meadows he had embroidered ran through him.”

Hauntings on a grander scale take place in ‘The Trains of the Dead’:

“They crossed like rays of lightning above the world. Some came and others went, rising and falling without direction or destination. In the windows he saw the faces of the dead in this world.”

Land of Smoke is a wonderful collection. It reads like a selection from a lifetime’s work but was apparently written after the death of her second husband and published in one volume in Argentina. Some stories reflect Gallardo’s talent as a writer of children’s fiction, particularly those about animals; some read like fables (including one of my favourites, ‘Cristobel the Giant’), others as if they have been excised from history. All originate from an imagination as wild and restless as White Glory himself:

“He was the only one who got away, for no other ran like him. No one could jump as high or as far… Rumour spread that there was a horse from heaven roaming free.”