Thirty years after her death, Sara Gallardo’s literary work has been translated into English. For Anglophone readers who delight in the surreal, the counterintuitive, and the singular, this is a welcome occurrence. Gallardo’s 1977 book Land of Smoke is the first of her works to appear in translation; over the course of a host of short stories, Gallardo explores the fantastical, aspects of loss, and unexpected geography.
Some of the stories in Land of Smoke are consciously literary. “A Camalote,” for instance, is a short riff on the experience of reading Walter Scott, and the tragic consequences of taking an idea from his work to an absurd end point. Others have a mythical quality, such as “Cristóbal the Giant,” which begins as a period narrative and evolves into something closer to a creation story. There’s a similar blurring of lines in “Things Happen,” which opens with its aged protagonist drifting in and out of sleep, and slowly turns into a surreal journal, before circling back around into the mundane.
Throughout the book, Gallardo utilizes bold structural choices, sometimes treading the line between fables and more traditional short story forms. “The Thirty-Three Wives of Emperor Blue Stone,” for instance, is comprised of a series of numbered sections–but while most are narrated by a single wife of the title character, Gallardo toys with this format, sometimes combining narrative voices and sometimes eschewing personal narratives altogether. That elusiveness manifests itself in other ways as well: “The Case of Mrs. Ricci,” about a woman seeking her pension whose narrative becomes stranger and stranger, balances aspects of a shaggy-dog story and something more metaphysically tragic.
Several of these stories begin in the middle of a scene, or with a narrator reflecting on someone that they once knew. For all of the disparate tones that Gallardo makes use of in Land of Smoke, there’s an air of the familiar throughout, as though the reader is experiencing a series of strange stories from an extraordinary life. Given that this be many readers’ first exposure to Gallardo, that literary experience might also be a literal one. Here’s hoping Land of Smoke isn’t the last of her works to appear in translation.
Land of Smoke
by Sara Gallardo; translated by Jessica Sequeira
Pushkin Press; 224 p.
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