January (Archipelago, 2023) by the Argentine writer Sara Gallardo was originally released in her home country in 1956 to little critical attention and hushed controversy: it’s a novel about a rape and its repercussions. Only in the past few decades, with women’s movements—particularly #MeToo—bringing stories of gender-based violence and harassment to the fore, has the novel sparked renewed interest, reprinted and billed as one of Argentina’s first novels to address sexual assault, and from the survivor’s perspective. Regarded now as a radical feminist triumph, this fearless co-translation by Frances Riddle and Maureen Shaughnessy, the first in English, makes no concessions to soften Gallardo’s stark prose. In the absence of satisfying justice, what she affords the reader is an unsanitized view of the country’s patriarchal legal and religious systems, which historically have promised yet failed to protect women.
The novel opens on a dinner table scene where the members of a rural Argentinian family talk excitedly about an upcoming harvest. But for sixteen-year-old Nefer, the harvest is a source of unspeakable dread. The changing of the seasons promises to unveil the inevitable a secret that by its very nature, cannot be kept: she is pregnant. Her thoughts drift to the circumstance of her expectancy: for her sister’s wedding, a month or so prior, she’d sewn herself a new floral dress. All evening, she’d been swept up in the thoughts of a handsome man, Negro—and here, she becomes recognizably teenage—would he notice her? What would he think of her dress? Her hopes are dashed when she spies her crush, preoccupied with another girl, and she retreats outside to weep. A man twice her age joins her. He isn’t Negro; she’s frightened. What happens next, though perhaps unspeakable by 1956 standards, can only be classified as sexual violation.
The scene is painful, its violence unambiguous, the roles of perpetrator and victim, irrefutable. Still, Nefer doesn’t expect justice. Her narration is fatalistic, lightened only when she imagines that by the time of the harvest she “might be dead,”a prospect that soothes her. But then, “she picture[d] 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 Alcria, she [thought], and her desire to die fade[d]. . . . .” Impressions of her youth grow more palpable, as her thoughts move swiftly from pregnancy to suicide and unrequited crushes. It would be easy to dismiss her suicidal ideation as the magnified hopelessness of a teenage mind, but, as the pages of the novel reveal, this impulse represents a form of rebellion, the first in a line of defiance against any authority that would entrap her.
When she seeks out death, it is not her own. Against the backdrop of an intensely religious milieu of mid-century Argentina, Gallardo’s broaching of the abortion issue is navigated with subtlety. Nefer sneaks out during siesta for the procedure, though this is revealed only through context clues. Even within the privacy of her thoughts, she avoids mentioning her purpose, she simply refers to an unspeakable “it”: I have this afternoon to do it and I’m going to go, she repeats like a mantra. She’s terrified, and her terror is of a specifically religious flavor, inflected with fear of damnation. She arrives at a house, occupied by a family that she describes as “cursed,” with “uncertain, crisscrossing surnames, with an uncle who used to practice black magic and a witch doctor for a grandmother.” Indeed, the house and the family therein are more frightening and terrible than she could’ve imagined—she encounters a grandson in the yard, who declares “The witch is inside!” only to mock the purpose of her visit: “Gotta ride on horseback when you’re a whore, when you’re a whore, when you’re a whore and a slut on horseback, yeah.” His grandmother whisks her inside, gives her a cup of maté, but from the window, Nefer can see the grandson screaming and pounding his fists on the dirt. Shortly after, she is told of another grandson who hung himself on the property. Trapped in an old house with a dark history and a set of ghoulish inhabitants, the scene verges on the gothic, a useful stylistic flourish reflective of Nefer’s religious inculcation. “Is there anything else you want?” the old woman asks, goading, as she re-fills the girl’s mug, a suggestion alarming enough to cause Nefer to flee.
Despite her religious upbringing, Nefer’s character arc is that of an emerging skeptic. As the arrival of the out-of-town priest approaches, she reflexively considers religion as a path toward salvation. If abortion leads to perdition, what acceptable alternatives does God provide? “Maybe I should pray?” Nefer thinks. “If I say one Hail Mary and three Apostles’ Creeds will a miracle occur? Maybe the Lord God is trying to scare me into praying more because I don’t pray enough. But very few people pray a lot and disgrace like mine doesn’t happen to any of them.” Then, as she approaches the confessional, she observes another hypocrisy: if confessing purifies the soul and cleanses the self for communion, she must tell the priest about her pregnancy, but if she tells the priest, she knows he will inform her family. Unconvinced by the sanctity of confession and overall wary of an institution that restricts her to either “damnation” or “public shame,” Nefer comes to see organized religion, which masquerades as a path towards salvation, as a vehicle for further entrapment.
Suicide, abortion, and confession, despite the various versions of freedom they seem to offer her, each come with their own caveat. As her despair mounts, the novel rises to a point of emotional climax with her family back at the dinner table, her mother pestering her to eat. “Enough already with the ‘I don’t want one!’” berates her mother. “Today it’s the buñuelos, tomorrow potatoes, yesterday the meat, and day after day—you’re pure skin and bones . . . As finicky as a pregnant lady you are.” The novel’s worth of familial bodily surveillance and micromanagement constantly pushes Nefer to the brink, and it is this exchange that detonates her secret. She runs outside in tears, as her mother shouts insults after her. Once again, her thoughts drift to suicidal ideation: “Maybe the roof of the barn will cave in and crush us and it will all be over,” she thinks.
The roof does not cave, but Nefer’s previously diminished hope reignites the following day, when her mother takes her to a doctor. “Perhaps telling the doctor will purge the sin from inside,” Nefer thinks, yet to what, exactly, she is referring is unclear: the unborn child or the event that precipitated it? It seems that she means both; the baby, the rape together form a conflated presence. One cannot be extinguished without the other, which perhaps gets at something central to this novel: there is no concept of victimhood or violence against women, only the state of being unmarried and pregnant decontextualized and the wickedness it implies.
When she and her mother leave the doctor’s, her mother says something unexpected; “‘Tomorrow we’ll be done with all this. You’ll see.”’ Nefer sees that her mother is referring to abortion, not that of an underground witch doctor but of legitimate medical authority, something Nefer hadn’t thought was available to her. But instead of seizing at the opportunity, Nefer pivots, “A new fear [took] hold of Nefer and suddenly she [felt] as if the enemy shadowing her night and day ha[d] become a secret ally. She crosse[d] her arms sullenly. ‘No one is going to lay a finger on me.’” Nefer’s abrupt contrariness in this moment is confounding, though the target of her opposition is most likely her mother, whom she hates, indeed, this animosity is an important subplot of the text, mirroring the disgust toward her own, unborn child. Still, Nefer’s somewhat childish resistance doesn’t last long. She returns to her mother the next day, saying she’s rethought things; her mother’s approval has transmuted the “sin” into a “solution,” and she would like to go through with the procedure, only for her mother to now backtrack. “Me?” she says, “I said that because I was angry, but it can’t actually be done. The police would take you away.” Here, parental authority works in coordination with legal and religious supremacy, blocking Nefer’s path to restitution.
Fantasies of escape still play Nefer’s mind, though now she has accepted that they are only fantasies: “Oh if only she had a horse and could escape forever.” Perhaps this is what is most striking about the tragedy of Nefer: the thing she most aches for, she can never have—herself. This is what makes the book’s ending most tragic. After she’s told of the arrival of a mysterious guest. Nefer hypothesizes about who they might be and what method of escape they might offer her. Is it someone to deliver the abortion, or is it a priest? “Maybe she will confess. She will. Yes, and the sin will leave her.” And then marking a subtle yet crucial turn in the narrative, “But what about the other thing? It—she—is not going to disappear with a simple confession” confronting the futility of religion as a potential method of escape. Even if her soul is pure, her body will still contain the evidence. The two possibilities for expulsion, confession and abortion, exist in fundamental tension with one another. That is, until the guest arrives.
What makes January’s intimate, third-person perspective so eviscerating is that her interiority, centered around the subjective experiences of the violence done to her, allows for a whiff of recognition of Nefer’s humanity, as flawed, as injured, and personal. To some extent, Nefer is aware of the structural inequities afflicting her. From the early pages of the novel, she laments, “It’s a different story for rich girls, they have their ways,” which is a very elegant way of throwing one’s arms up and shouting that it isn’t fair to a world that won’t hear it.