Sara Gallardo, recently rediscovered Argentine writer

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Sara Gallardo (1931-1988). Image from Wikimedia Commons

This is a guest post by Jordana Blejmar (University of Liverpool) and Joanna Page (University of Cambridge). 

Sara Gallardo was born in Buenos Aires in 1931 to an aristocratic Catholic family, with illustrious antecedents such as General Bartolomé Mitre, the writer Miguel Cané, the politician and biologist Ángel Gallardo, all key figures in the constitution of the Argentine nation. Her striking and eclectic fiction has been recently ‘rediscovered’, and the University Library has acquired many of her most important works (see here).

Gallardo travelled extensively in Latin America, Europe and Asia, published five novels, one book of short stories, several chronicles and four books for children. Her love for literature started in childhood. She was constantly ill and spent several days in bed reading books that would later influence her writing, including adventure stories, animal fables and classic works by Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling and others. In 1950 she became a journalist; in 1958, she published her first novel, Enero (UL classmark: 2016.7.388), the story of a humble maid working on an estancia (a ranch), who falls pregnant following a rape and considers having an abortion. Gallardo presents a portrait of the relationship between patrones and employees without sentimentalism or a patronising gaze, and deals sensitively with issues of prejudice and guilt.

Gallardo would return to a Catholic world of priests, sinners, and saviours in later texts, including Pantalones azules (1963, 2016.7.385). But other novels take us far from the concerns and experiences of Gallardo’s social class. The extraordinary Eisejuaz (1971, 2016.8.386) It presents the interior monologue of a Mataco (or Wichí) man living in the Chaco province in northeastern Argentina, who receives signs from God that tell him how he should act. As readers, we are constantly confronted with the dilemma of whether or not to credit his worldview. What is outstanding in the novel is its creation of a new language for the thoughts and speech of her Indian narrator. This carries indigenous inflections in its grammar and syntax, but is far from the very limited, poor speech often ascribed to indigenous people in Latin American literature. It is terse but extremely poetic in its use of startling and condensed images, inviting comparison with the stark language and the rich imagery that Rulfo combines in his Pedro Páramo.

Gallardo’s contributions to the fantastic genre are significant. Her use of the fantastic – as we can see from a number of the short stories in the collection El país del humo (1977, C205.d.4123) – is quite different from that of other Argentine writers of this period, like Cortázar or Borges. Her stories do not raise existential questions about the nature of reality or point to the unknowability of the universe. They are much more playful and humorous, and make far greater use of the absurd. They are quirky tales that reveal something about human nature, such as our stoicism in extreme situations, or, conversely, our propensity to look for ways to escape the constraints of everyday life.

Good examples of her ability to juxtapose the eccentric and the everyday within tales of striking visuality can be found in ‘El secreto’, ‘Cosas de la vida’ and ‘El hombre en la araucaria’ from that collection, now also available in English translation as Land of Smoke, in the first of her works to have been published in English (trans. Jessica Sequeira, Pushkin Press, 2018, available on print and as an e-book). Gallardo often uses techniques of defamiliarization and ellipsis in her short stories, and they are frequently told from the perspective of non-humans: animals of many different kinds, and even inanimate matter, such as a lawn in ‘Un césped’. Her stories often rewrite familiar Argentine literary traditions and narrative topoi, such as literatura gauchesca and the great nineteenth-century theme of civilization and barbarism, drawing on themes of heroism, freedom and violence but subjecting these to humour and irony. Her simple language, short sentences and crisp dialogue are perfectly suited to stories that work much like fables, in which meaning is not to be found in philosophical reflection, but in action and consequence, in form and repetition.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, Gallardo’s work was popular and very well received both by the general public and the specialised press. Writer Ricardo Piglia played an important role in the ‘rediscovery’ of Gallardo’s work, including Eisejuaz in a collection of classic Argentine literary texts published by the newspaper Clarín in 2001, and referring to her alongside writers of the stature of Sarmiento, Borges and Puig. Writer Leopoldo Brizuela (see 744:39.c.200.340) and scholars such as Lucía di Leone (see C213.c.6259) and Paula Bertúa also produced critical editions and new readings of Gallardo’s work.

One of the reasons her fiction may have been overlooked in the intervening generations is that it escapes easy categorizations. Her work predates a more well-known generation of more overtly feminist writers from the Southern Cone, such as Luisa Valenzuela, Marta Traba, or Cristina Peri Rossi, who came to prominence in the later 1970s and 1980s. Unlike other women writers of her generation in Argentina, such as Beatriz Guido, Marta Lynch, Silvina Bullrich and Silvina Ocampo, she rarely situated her fiction in domestic, bourgeois, urban settings, or dealt with more predictable topics such as childhood or women’s experience. Instead, she chose male narrators for most of her novels, and set many of them in harsh rural landscapes.

Her writing did not always respond to the political imperatives of her era. In the 1960s and particularly the 1970s, politics increasingly determined every aspect of the lives of many writers in Argentina. Francisco Urondo and Rodolfo Walsh announced the death of fiction and encouraged writers to dedicate themselves to a more testimonial literature, in tune with the needs of those convulsive years, even if they never entirely stopped writing fiction and poetry themselves. Concrete references to politics are often absent in Gallardo’s literature. There have been political readings of her work, however. ‘Las ratas’ from El país del humo, with its references to an invasion, a war and an extermination, has been read as an allegory for the political violence that reigned in Argentina at the time.

But it is perhaps her abiding concern for the ‘Other’ – marginalized, solitary characters, women, animals, monsters, even elements of nature – that gives Gallardo’s literature its most powerful political dimension. If her work has mistakenly been labelled by some critics as ‘anachronistic’ for her time, perhaps one reason why her fiction has been rediscovered in the new millennium is because it appears surprisingly fresh, addressing concerns relevant to our own moment: boundaries between the human and the non-human, animality; feminist and queer themes, including transvestism, sexual abuse and abortion. It is ironic that while she wrote so successfully about topics and universes beyond those considered acceptable for her gender, family or class, it took the reading public decades to overcome its own prejudices concerning her wealthy origins and to look beyond questions of social class in her work.

In 1977, during the most intense period of state violence in Argentina, Gallardo moved to Barcelona, and then to Switzerland and Rome. She died in Buenos Aires of an asthma attack, during a brief visit to her native country in 1988 at the age of 57.

Jordana Blejmar and Joanna Page

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