It is tempting to file the remarkable stories in Sara Gallardo’s “Land of Smoke” under “magic realism” and close the drawer. But that would be an incomplete reading of the collection and a misreading of the genre, an elastic label that offers a rather easy recipe for critics — have people; add wings.
Which is not to say Gallardo’s fiction has no wings. From her story “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.” What is striking is the chronological frame, the man’s age, the year, even the time of day. Gallardo squarely places him in history, in reality, to get him flying.
Inevitably, Gabriel García Márquez comes to mind, along with his magically real story (emphasis on magic), “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” a half-nightmarish fable about what appears to be a recently grounded angel. But the story is really about the town’s response. The story suggests a blurry moral and reads like a highly orchestrated dream. Gallardo, on the other hand, wants us to believe: in the wings, and in the man “who left his wife and children,” “put sewing machine oil on his wings,” “carried them in a cello case” and flew to the “Torres de los Ingleses,” where he “lives amongst the chimneys of a factory.” Frankly, not much happens, and it’s only two pages long. But it flies. Almost a sketch, the story achieves a brief, uncanny completeness, which proves typical of the nearly fifty more (very) short stories in the collection.
Read them sequentially and they accrue something more than magic, they radiate a marvelously strange mythopoetic intensity. The book is a bible.
There are eight books in “Land of Smoke,” each a discrete but related individual collection: the eponymous “Land of Smoke,” “In the Desert,” “In the Garden,” “Daggers,” “Two Sorrels and Co.,” “Tasks,” “Trains” and “Exiles.” And they speak to each other, like neighbors over walls. Gardens abound, as do horses, flowers, seas, dreams, generals, mountains, heads and monsters, making for a generally airy atmosphere coupled with Gallardo’s substantial preoccupations: life, death, evil, Edens, priests, murder and God. It is these unlikely connections that make for such a consistently surprising and enigmatic read.
She is comfortable making magic (if that’s the right word), like in “Things Happen,” in which a man’s home and garden detach from the land and float off into the ocean. A sea monster (or a god) makes an appearance. Birds alight. The garden crumbles and disappears, sounding echoes from the previous story’s opening line, from “Georgette and the General”: “This story tells how a good thought transformed an Eden into a desert.” All the while, the marooned man is in a frenzy of survival and disbelief, “crying, laughing, naked,” while dropping knotty metaphysics: “Philosophy germinates from loneliness. And from fear.” It’s a delightful and subversively inventive experience, as are most of the stories in the first half.
But Gallardo finds herself equally and unexpectedly comfortable in the gallery of plain human violence. “I should have strangled my wife last night between eleven and one,” begins “Palermo.” “The world is my enemy. I started by selling my parents’ cutlery. I would have sold their hearts that day,” begins “Byword.” A page or so each, they represent a style that accounts for much of the book’s second half. Often evoking one dark, telling act, they read like poetic reports on the back of playing cards for villains, or placards under portraits, a noir hagiography. They beautifully balance the book.
Gallardo is most forceful when embracing enigma. See here an entire story, “A Camalote,” reminiscent of both Borges’ and Kafka’s aphorisms:
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.
She is at her weakest, predictably, when didactic. “Cristobal the Giant” tells the story of a giant on a mission, “going to look for a chief, the greatest that exists.” He humbly serves a human general, until he learns the Devil is stronger. “Thus he began his work for the Devil.” Until, of course (you get one guess…), he learns about the Lord. Cristobal gallops away on a horse, skyward. It’s practically a church pamphlet. Thankfully, this only happens a handful of times, and the missteps are so abrupt they serve to complicate the author if not the work.
Gallardo wrote this collection in the wake of her husband’s death, which perhaps explains why it is such a mysterious work. She died at fifty-six in Buenos Aires, her hometown, in 1988. “Land of Smoke” is the first of her works translated into English. Peopled by seekers, ghosts, kings and killers, it reads like poetic communiqué from an exceptional imagination, or as Gallardo puts it in “New Science,” my favorite: “I will tell you what I was able to discover.” And she does.
Cheshire is the author of the novel “High as the Horses’ Bridles” and teaches at Queens College, City University of New York.