The short stories and vignettes in your Land of Smoke (2018, tr. Jessica Sequeira. Original: El país del humo, 1977) walk us through the mist of a reality that we can only recognize in dreams. Borrowing from myth and fairy tales, you play with odd points of view – such as those of animals, trains, and even a lawn. Loners, prostitutes, priests, and soldiers inhabit your mists; they are threatened by the force of the elements, they stray into unreality, they lose track; their lives are suffused by some form of violence; they are lonely.
My favourite story in this collection is “Things Happen”. Here, a man lives alone in his house in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. He only has eyes for his garden, even to the detriment of his neighbourhood, where water is scarce. One day, out of the blue, he finds himself swept out to sea: his house and garden had somehow been uprooted, detached from the ground, and were adrift in the middle of the ocean. He is his own island – and one which is slowly eating itself out. His beloved garden crumbles bit by bit over the course of his strange journey, his water supply is dwindling, but, luckily, he still has a reasonable amount of canned food in the pantry. And he can fish.
One day, a castaway appears out of nowhere, grabs the tip of the floating garden, only to drown a minute later – not without leaving behind the imprint of his bewildering glimpse into firm ground. Another day, a sea monster rises from the water, “tall as a hundred trains”, “lifting her body into the air”. It moves, it glances to the infinite sea all around, it goes way.
At one point, the house floats into a sea of ice, braving dense fog, and frozen animals drift past. Birds fly by the house, bringing the hope of dry land. The garden disappears, the windows crack, the house seems to be sinking. “Philosophy germinates from loneliness. And from fear.”
One day, our man sees a line on the horizon – “Land!” – but is unable to let go of his floating house. It moves away, and the coast disappears. “One invigorating exercise for the navigator’s imagination is to mentally paint the abyss below, the depths sheltering mountain ranges; black surroundings, eternal cold. Compared to them, the splashing, the transparency and the light of the surface become pleasant. The precariousness of our suspension is underlined.”
We feel as though we will drift with him forever. But forever is too long a word: his garden will finally break off, the house will be handed over to the swallows, and our man will eventually manage to come back to his street. There will be no water there – as always. And there will be no garden left where had once been his house.
Another story I loved was “A Secret”. A woman keeps a spare head in her closet, and begins a double life in Buenos Aires. She falls in love, manages to convince a man that she is two different women, then relents and confesses her secret to him. “He would always love her. No matter what form she wanted to take. She just had to let him know beforehand.” He not only accepted her secret, but also grew addicted to her: “She had so much to offer.”
Of course, having to let him know run counter her need for transmutation, and she had to find other ways to keep it under control: eating a plastic bag, cleaning the floor with shampoo, “going to a costume party without a costume.” She thinks these are eccentricities that can do no harm, small secrets no one will find out. But, when their child is born, he comes out wrapped in a plastic bag. The father feels betrayed. He leaves them forever. “That’s how a secret is. It wants us alone.”
In “On the Mountain”, an injured soldier gets trapped in a mountain, and is rescued by a man who once belonged to the enemy group. The rescuer later deserted them and now lived as a lone wolf in a cave. They never talk. Sometimes, a beast enters their cave in the middle of the night – and the beast is pregnant. “Look for shelter and you find ice, look for warmth and you step in a bonfire. And so you die in two different ways, and the mountain stays indifferent.”
The soldier and the deserter will have a profound impact on each other. And the beast will humanize them both. A new race will be born. “I meant to wake something in him, I didn’t know well what. Laughter. That’s it, laughter. Which, after words, is the most human thing of all (if you except betrayal). I felt that laughter, a smile, could be the dawn of a word. One word and the wall of his madness could fall.”
“Georgette and the General” is a story that “tells how a good thought transformed an Eden into a desert.” Georgette, a French courtesan, is brought to Argentina by a general, who gifted her with a white house in the countryside. Georgette took great care of her beloved house. Even after death, she continued to haunt the place, to guarantee that it is kept in order. “Floating in the house, she inspected the wardrobes, the remaining flowers. A longing to leave, an anxiety to stay, she hung about uneasily, her fate in limbo. She trembled like the cork on an invisible thread in an invisible water.”
The house took on an abnormal splendour, and Eden lingered on. Time went by. One of the general’s daughters, now eighty, decides to order a mass for the dead and the living. Georgette’s soul can finally experience release. “That blessing fell on her soul. Her uneasiness shattered like a glass. A slit seemed to appear. Through which she slipped.” She abandons her paradise and is put to rest. “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.”
“White Glory” is the name of a white stallion destined to be lonely. He has been sold by his owner and is being transported in a train. An accident happens, the train crashes. Terrified, White Glory battles for his freedom and escapes into the night. “Yes, he went about free. But once again he was alone. How alone, and how free.”
In “Phases of the Moon”, a priest braves a number of dangers in the pampas, only to die while trying to baptize a werewolf. “That’s how terror works: it’s born somewhere, courses like a thunderbolt, touches someone, is lost.” In “The Rats”, the eponymous animals have to struggle against the city’s hostilities to rodents – and do so by impersonating the priest, the newspaper vendor, the warden, and even the grocer. In “Cristoferos”, a statue regrets having discovered the Americas: “I didn’t know what a sad continent I was inaugurating”.
“A New Science” begins with a reference to the publication of Silvina Ocampo’s Epitaphs for Twelve Chinese Clouds, only to move to the story of a pseudoscientist, Arturo Manteiga, who assigned different human events to the shape of clouds. We then follow the birth of a conspiracy theory according to which human affairs were not only influenced, but rather controlled by 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.” Clouds make history. “Like art, science doesn’t often concern itself with reason.”
I love the way the stories provide the reader with a frame in place, history and time, only to gradually implode that frame, leading us to some kind of impossible dreamscape. As if it were part of a magic trick, you give us a splash of tangible reality, a landscape, even a place in the calendar – only to cover them with your humo and bring a twisted combination out of a cloud of smoke.
Consider the first lines in “The Man on the Araucaria”: “A man spent twenty years making himself a pair of wings. In 1924, he used them for the first time, at dawn. His main concern was the police.” The man manages to fly, but his wings can only lift him as high as an araucaria. He leaves his wife and children, and makes a nest on a tree. Someone calls the police, but our man flies away. “He lives amongst the chimneys of a factory. He’s old and eats chocolate.”
I love how matter-of-factly everything is described, even though we have a feeling that the narrator might be a bit off: “A man spent twenty years making himself a pair of wings. In 1924, he used them for the first time…” His main concern is… the police? Or, as in the first lines of “Doming Antunez”: “I prefer to slit throats, though my marksmanship isn’t bad.“
You play with the gaps in our sense of reality – our fears, our non sequiturs, our foundational myths – not only for comedic effect, but also for a splash in the uncanny. We are left in unsettled ground, but we can never quite point out why, or where, or when everything went out the rails. You bring the ghosts out of our foundational myths, then burn them at the stake – and we are left to translate the smoke signals. It is odd and unsettling. And it is glorious.
“Reading Walter Scott, it occurred to me to build a castle facing the Paraná. It made me happy with its battlements, towers, drawbridge. A camalote brought a tiger along the river from the northern region.
It killed my wife and three children.
Reading Walter Scott, I forgot where I was.
I will not forget it any longer.” – Sara Gallardo, “A Camalote”, in Land of Smoke
“He told a colleague that as a young man, he had embroidered cloth. But that now there was no difference between the embroiderer and the embroidered, that when embroidering he was embroidered, that the embroidery embroidered him and he the embroidery.” – Sara Gallardo, “An Embroiderer”, in Land of Smoke
“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.” – Sara Gallardo, “The Thirty-three Wives of the Emperor Blue Stone”, in Land of Smoke
About the book
- Pushkin Press, 2018, tr. Jessica Sequeira, 283 p. Goodreads
- Original: El país del humo, 1977
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- Projects: Invisible Cities, hosted by Yamini (shakespeareandspice); Nicole (nicole is here to learn); Natalie (Curious Reader); Stephanie (time to read!); Michael (Knowledge Lost); Wil (MyBookishEmpire); and Agnese (Beyond the Epilogue); Reading Independent Publishers Month, hosted by Karen and Lizzie (February 2021, #ReadIndies)