Sara Gallardo’s debut, January, has been read and passionately discussed by readers since it was first published in Argentina in 1958. At the heart of the novel is a teenage girl who has become pregnant through a suffocating encounter with an older man. Isolated by her secret, Nefer approaches the question of abortion alone. Dread makes Nefer’s vision shrink to only take in the objects directly in front of her: a fork, a plate, moths rising to meet a lantern and then falling back down. We feel the expanse of the Argentine pampas in her periphery, the drip of sweat in blinding sunlight, the constant pull of the Catholic mission on her rural community. Rage is channeled through the only available routes: competition with a sister who has been spared, fury at a mother who does not help. Nefer finds salvation only in the briefest moments. Hope springs when witnessing the tenderness and unrestrained movement of animals. In less than 120 pages, Gallardo exposes the effects of a patriarchal social system and political regime in the mind of a young woman whose life has been curtailed by forces over which she has no control. Frances Riddle and Maureen Shaughnessy’s translation carries over the searching voice of the original. This is the first time January has been translated into English.
January is available now from Archipelago Books.
They talk about the harvest but they don’t know that by then there’ll be no turning back, Nefer thinks. Everyone here and everywhere else will know by then, and they won’t be able to stop talking about it. Her eyes cloud with worry; she slowly lowers her head and herds a small flock of crumbs across the worn oilcloth. Her father mentions the harvest and then reaches for the tea towel used to wipe all the hands and mouths around the table. Her mother stands to pass it to him, stepping on the dog, which yelps and takes refuge under the bench. As she walks, her shadow moves across those of the people seated around the table, held fixed on the walls by the light of a lantern. The day will come when my belly starts to show, Nefer thinks. The insects buzz, flutter, and fall as they hit the lantern. They climb back up the lantern’s tin skirt, singe their wings and fall back down again. No one pays any attention to her, still and silent in the corner, as they lean over their plates eating and listening to the occasional exchange between Don Pedro and the Turk, who slurps a spoonful of soup, still out of breath after unhitching his horses from the cart.
“Holsteins,” the Turk says. “About a hundred head… Good-looking cows.”
“Where did you say you passed them, Nemi?” Doña María asks. “Near the crossing. On their way to the market, I reckon…”
“That’s right, the market’s tomorrow… But whose could they be?… You don’t know, do you, Juan? Who was planning to sell cattle tomorrow?”
Juan yawns, not hearing her as he stares into the lantern with bleary eyes.
“Yes, ma’am!” Juan is new to his job on the ranch and doesn’t want to look dumb.
“I was asking you who might be sending cattle to the market, the Turk saw some Holsteins…”
Nefer measures the distance between her body and the table, thinking how before long she won’t be able to slip past and sit at the end of the bench. But by then I won’t be coming to meals. By then I might be dead. And she pictures herself surrounded by flowers and sad faces, and Negro leaning in the doorway with a serious expression, finally laying his eyes on her. But even then he’ll probably be looking at Alcira, she thinks, discouraged, and her desire to die fades as she watches her sister pensively scratch her arm while she waits for the Turk to finish eating so she can clear his plate.
Shadows dance along the rough wall and merge with the darkness of the roof where the thatch stretches like a taut braid. Alcira turns on the radio and tunes from station to station until stopping on a comedy show with a voice screeching in a fake Italian accent.
Don Pedro resumes his conversation with the Turk, the radio like a waterfall drowning out their voices.
“So, it was expensive, huh?”
“Sure was, but like I said, if we get a good harvest it’ll be cheaper in the end…”
The harvest, impossible for it to come without everyone knowing. A howl rises in her throat but stops at her teeth, sliding back down to where it came from. She longs for a moment of fresh air, to get out of this kitchen where the heat from the lantern laps at their faces and the air vibrates with the hum of the radio and Doña María laughs with Alcira at the actors’ jokes.
But to leave she would first have to ask everyone else on the bench to stand, and also explain why she wants to go outside. No, better not to call attention to herself; maybe a sip of wine will make her feel better. She reaches for the bottle that Don Pedro has just set down, brings it to her lips and closes her eyes as she drinks. Then she pushes open the little window beside her and a waft of fresh air hits her face. She leans out to look for the lights of Santa Rosa Ranch in the distance, but all she can see is the foliage of a nearby tree.
If only Negro knew that it’s his, that it’s his, then maybe he’d notice me, maybe he’d love me and marry me. Maybe the three of us could all ride off in a buggy to live the rest of our lives on another ranch, far away from here.
But it’s not his… Yes, yes it is, it’s his… No, it’s not… But it is Negro’s fault, it’s definitely his fault. What’s a young woman to do? All alone in the country, a countryside so vast and green, nothing but horizon, with trains going off to cities and coming back from who knows where. What can she do?
It’s a different story for rich girls. She thinks of Luisa, who at this time of night must be sitting at the dining table in the estancia. Nefer’s mother once said, “Those girls are all the same, they can roll in the hay with whoever they like and no one will find out. They have their ways.” Is that true? But dear God, what about me? What have I done? Nothing, it was nothing, she hardly even remembers it, it didn’t matter, it was like a dream, and now, seated among all these carefree people living their lives, she feels only worry and fear.
Because there’s no going back, time keeps passing and everything grows, and after growth comes death. But you can never go backwards. And Negro, when he finds out, when Edilia hears about it—that sharp tongue of hers, that laugh of hers—Negro might smile, might even make a joke… No, oh no, and it’s all his fault, it’s Negro’s fault, because she doesn’t even know how it happened, but it’s all Negro’s fault.
She thinks about how she might have never even met him, and then it’s as if she’s been transported back to the day she first saw him. She feels the lightness in the air again, the fresh breeze. The entire family had gone to the rodeo because it had been a while since the prizes were so big. Her cousin, a pale, skinny, bowlegged fellow, had a good shot at winning. Nefer remembers squinting to see him mount his horse, then his body swaying in the saddle, one arm held up timidly in the air, too scared to crack the whip.
From behind her someone had said: “He’s gonna make off with quite a prize if he keeps whipping that horse so hard…”
The joke was met with several laughs. Nefer, humiliated for her cousin’s sake, turned her head in contempt to confront the wise- cracker, but when she saw him, with one leg crossed casually over the saddlebow, a cigarette in his mouth, she looked down. That was the first time she’d ever laid eyes on Negro Ramos, but his fame as a horseman preceded him.
“Nefer! Someone’s talking to you! You’d think she’s dim! Are you falling asleep?”
She looks up to see the Turk, Nemi Bleis, his bushy mustache leaning toward her. And she stares at the web of veins crisscrossing his nose to avoid thinking about how long he might have been speaking to her before she noticed.
“What were you saying?” she asks.
“About that fabric I sold you the last time I came through, for your sister’s wedding; the floral print, remember? How’d it turn out?”
“Yes, of course. It turned out real nice, thank you.”
Translated by Frances Riddle and Maureen Shaughnessy