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This is the first book I read for WIT Month. I discovered ‘Land of Smoke‘ by Sara Gallardo by accident, while browsing in the bookshop. A beautiful, serendipitous discovery. I have never heard of Sara Gallardo before – she is an Argentinian writer, and this is the first book of hers to be translated into English.

Land of Smoke‘ is a collection of short stories. It was originally published in Spanish in 1977. It has 46 stories. Some of them are short shorts, sometimes they are just a page long, while others are a bit long at around 20 pages. The book is divided into sections, with stories under the same theme grouped together. For example, there is a section where nature – mountains, seas, clouds – plays a big part. There is a section in which the stories are about animals, there is a section about horses, another about trains. I loved this arrangement – it was quite interesting.

I loved the book overall. But I loved some of the stories more than the others. Here is a brief description of some of my favourites.

On the Mountain – This is the first story in the book. A soldier is trapped in a mountain in the middle of a battle. He is injured and he can’t walk. He is saved by another man, who seems to be living there. This strange man, doesn’t talk. Or he doesn’t want to talk. What happens after that? Does the soldier recover? Does this host who saves him talk to him? Who is this stranger who lives in the mountain? And what is this beast which sometimes knocks at their cave in the middle of the night? You have to read the story to find out.

Georgette and the General – A general who goes to Europe, comes back with a French girl, who is his lover. He builds a separate house for her in the middle of nowhere, and visits her often. He is married and has his own family with whom he lives elsewhere. This French girl’s name is Georgette. What happens to Georgette for the rest of her life, forms the rest of the story. It is beautiful, poignant and heartbreaking.

Things Happen – A man who lives in a particular street has a beautiful garden which is the envy of his neighbours. One day morning he wakes up to the sound of water drops hitting his house’s windows. He thinks it is raining. But when he walks to the window to see what is happening, he discovers that his whole house with the garden is floating in the middle of the ocean. Our man thinks that he is either dreaming or he is having a hallucination. So he goes back to sleep. But when he gets up there is no change. His house is still floating in the ocean and the waves are spraying water drops on his windows. It is unbelievable. How did this happen? Is the man able to get off the ocean onto solid land? You should read the story to find out.

But on the island – Two cats explore the city and they end up in the zoological park. There they discover their cousins, the bigger cats the lions. They slowly start understanding the lions’ language. And one day they help one of the younger lions to escape. Are these three – two small cats and one big one – able to enjoy their freedom and live happily everafter? The rest of the story tells us what happened.

A Lawn – We see the world through the eyes of a lawn and it is incredibly beautiful. I cried when I read the last lines of the story.

White Glory – White Glory is one of the great horses of his time, but his master sells him off. While being transported in a train, there is an accident, and White Glory ends up in the wild. What happens after that is glorious and White Glory is magnificent.

Cristóbal the giant – Cristóbal is a giant-sized person who is also innocent and simple. He wants to find a master to serve. One day he meets a general and requests to serve him. The general gives him an impossible task. What happens after that and the way Cristóbal discovers new things about life forms the rest of the story.

White Flowers – A one-page story which describes the life of a normal, everyday person. Very fascinating.

The Great Night of the Trains – There are trains which are put out of service and are abandoned near the tracks. What people don’t know is that these trains have their own lives and personalities and memories and dreams. One day, these abandoned trains all get together and decide to rebel. What happens after that is the rest of the story. It gave me goosebumps.

A Loner – A restaurant closes down. Most people, both the customers and employees, move on. But it affects some of the customers, who are introverts and loners and reclusives, quite deeply. What they do about it forms the rest of the story. This story is a beautiful love letter to solitude and to introverts and reclusives and it stands up there with Emily Maguire’s essay ‘Solitude is Bliss‘. I loved this story so much.

I loved ‘Land of Smoke‘. One of the descriptions of the book is that it is hallucinatory. I think that is a perfect description of the book. I loved the way how sometimes nature plays a bigger role in the story than the human characters. I also loved the way how Sara Gallardo has sometimes told a story from an unusual perspective, making us see the world in new ways – for example, from the perspective of the lawn, the horse, the abandoned trains – it is fascinating. This is a book to be read slowly, lingered on and savoured. I am glad that I discovered a new Argentinian writer who has become one of my favourites now. I can’t wait to read my next Sara Gallardo book.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Things Happen

“When watering his garden, how many times had he enjoyed watching the ants struggling in the currents from his hose? Now he thought of them differently. Supposing for a moment a sea god actually existed, the Neptune of the ancients the boy joked about on television, wouldn’t he get the same pleasure directing men and their boats as he had spinning the insects, occasionally saving some because of their beauty or harmlessness, in a momentary good mood? Harmless or beautiful from whose point of view? The gardener’s. But doubtless there were others.”

From ‘Phases of the Moon

“It also isn’t pleasant to change horses just like that. A horse is someone you get used to, someone who gets used to you. But to arrive at a human settlement and get permission to leave the tired horse, choose another and free it when you reach your destination because it can return home on its own, is an impediment to the heart’s affection. You can’t even get used to a horse.”

From ‘The Thirty-Three Wives of Emperor Blue Stone

“Old age is a drunkenness. I’ve lost my teeth but influence nourishes me. I plait my white hair. What would be plaited without me?”

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

From ‘An Embroiderer

“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.”

From ‘A Loner

“Ever since he was young, Frin had invested all the effort many use to get a good job into the opposite, avoiding one.”

Have you read Sara Gallardo’sLand of Smoke‘? What do you think about it? Who is your favourite Argentine writer?

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