In the first months of my pregnancy, I was so exhausted that walking downhill felt like walking up. The only food that appealed to me was pineapple. I tracked my physical state in the notebook where ordinarily I track the progress of my work. On bad days, I’d just write, “Tired tired,” too worn out to come up with another word. I got pregnant on purpose, at the time I thought was right, having wanted a baby since I was too young to bear one, and in those tired-tired months I could not stop thinking about the legions of pregnant people who were as ground down and physically miserable as me—or much more so—but not by choice.

The Argentine writer Sara Gallardo’s short and hair-raisingly good 1958 novel January, translated into English for the first time by Frances Riddle and Maureen Shaughnessy, focuses on one such person. Nefer is the sixteen-year-old daughter of estancia laborers in rural Argentina; her family is so poor they have just one tea towel “used to wipe all the hands and mouths” around the dinner table. At her older sister’s wedding party, Nefer is raped by a drunk railroad worker—an “enormous man” whose body is suffocatingly hot on hers. She gets pregnant. For her very Catholic family and community, this is catastrophic. Nefer tries to keep her situation secret, which is a challenge on two fronts: she’s visibly sick, her exhaustion “like mud in my veins,” and she has no access to the abortion she wants.

Gallardo was twenty-seven when January was published. Born in 1931, she grew up in Buenos Aires in a family of men so famous there are streets named after them all over Argentina: her grandfather Ángel Gallardo was a civil engineer and politician; her great-grandfather Miguel Cané was a journalist, senator, and diplomat; and her great-great-grandfather Bartolomé Mitre was president of Argentina from 1862 to 1868. If you’ve visited Buenos Aires, you have almost certainly walked down Bartolomé Mitre, a street one block from the Plaza de Mayo; you may well have gotten off the Subte at the Ángel Gallardo stop south of Palermo, too.

Mitre founded La Nación to support his liberal politics, though it is currently Argentina’s foremost conservative newspaper. Gallardo started working for the paper at twenty-one. She later served as a Middle East correspondent for the magazine Atlántida and as a popular columnist for the magazine Confirmado, run by the pioneering Argentine Jewish journalist Jacobo Timerman. In the 1970s Argentina’s antisemitic junta illegally detained and incarcerated Timerman, who was then expelled and stripped of his Argentine citizenship. Gallardo, in contrast, left the country for personal reasons: she moved to Spain in the late 1970s, according to her son Agustín, to try to get over the death of her second husband, the writer and translator H.A. Murena.

Gallardo died of an asthma attack in 1988, at fifty-six, and wrote little in the final decade of her life. She left behind travel chronicles and a collection of stories; a handful of children’s books; an unfinished biography of Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher turned nun who was murdered in Auschwitz; and six novels, which were forgotten for years but have been revived in the twenty-first century. Two of her books—January and the not yet translated Eisejuaz (1971)—are now considered to be among Argentina’s best modern novels.

María Sonia Cristoff, an Argentine fiction writer and journalist, has said that Gallardo’s writing “harmonizes with marginalized voices…without ever reducing them to victims,” a compliment that, while true and serious, does not do January full justice. Gallardo, who lived a life of great choice and mobility, writes with a deep sense of kinship about the social factors—class, race, gender, religion, and rurality—that converge on poor, pregnant Nefer to take her liberty away.

A full-term pregnancy is forty weeks long, and those weeks can drag. January does not. Its action takes place over roughly two weeks and, like any pregnancy plot, is driven by what the book describes as time’s “unstoppable current conspiring with [Nefer’s] own body, which has betrayed her.” Nefer’s pregnancy ticks like a clock throughout—in the very first paragraph, she thinks, “The day will come when my belly starts to show”—but it’s not the only one. Nefer’s community is about to receive its annual visit from a priest, for an eight-day event called “the mission,” during which everyone is expected to confess a year’s worth of sins. Nefer wants the pregnancy over before she has to go to confession.

From the start Gallardo makes clear the number of social forces arrayed against this goal. It’s a given that abortion is neither legal nor religiously sanctioned, but really what’s stopping Nefer is the fact that she’s rural and poor. “What’s a young woman to do?” she thinks. “All alone in the country, a countryside so vast and green, nothing but horizon…. It’s a different story for rich girls.” According to Nefer’s mother, “Those girls…can roll in the hay with whoever they like and no one will find out. They have their ways.”


Gallardo narrates Nefer’s attempts to come up with some of her own in breathless gasps of prose and brief, ellipsis-heavy bursts of dialogue. Shaughnessy and Riddle are attentive to rhythm in their translation, stacking clauses and repeating words in ways that are uncommon—and sometimes frowned upon—in English but suit the novel’s tempo. In the scene when Nefer first tries to end her pregnancy, riding her beloved dapple horse as fast as she can in an effort to induce a miscarriage, they use the word “gallop” or “galloping” four times, its reappearance like hoofbeats in the text.

It is logical that Nefer first turns to nature for help: she lives in the countryside, far from any doctors. But it makes emotional sense, too. Her most intimate relationships are with animals. She gets along poorly with everybody in her family except her quiet, passive father, who makes leather goods in the yard. She’s tormented by a crush on a gaucho who, no matter what she tries, seems not to notice her presence.

Nefer’s godmother, Doña Mercedes, is a local patrona—an authority figure rather than a source of affection or support. Shaughnessy and Riddle are smart to leave the word patrona in their text rather than translate it to “landowner” or “boss”; it successfully evokes Doña Mercedes’s patronizing, near-feudal relationship with the workers who live on her land.

When Nefer is sad, she turns away from other people, comforting herself by petting a ranch dog or thinking about “her horse of green grass, her horse eating the grass, the green grass, so glad the horse is resting, not like Nefer.” Nefer seems almost to be straining to inhabit the horse’s mind, concentrating on the grass instead of the complex human world.

Nefer does not turn from her other emotions. She feels anger and desire fiercely and without shame. She is not immune to repression—she hardly recalls her assault—but it does not affect her sensual side. Her memories of her sister’s wedding center on her crush, Negro Ramos. (Negro is a common nickname in Argentina, and could suggest that the gaucho is indigenous or mestizo.) He didn’t notice her, but she still remembers his presence making her feel like she “had eyes in the back of her head, up and down her arms, her neck, all over her body. Without looking at him directly, she could see Negro the whole time.” The sexiness of that language reappears whenever Negro does, and every time Nefer thinks of her pregnancy, she summons his name. At times she even tries to persuade herself that the force of her desire for Negro means that the baby belongs to him, telling herself that “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…. But it’s not his.”

Despite this magical thinking, which serves to remind the reader how young she is, Nefer is not at ease with the idea of real magic. Still, she tries. In a nearby town, there’s a witch who Nefer has heard can solve her problem. She sneaks out during siesta and rides to see the woman, hushing her fear on the way by picking out “objects one at a time, attributing an exaggerated importance to each. Thistle, she thinks, thistle, partridge, dung, anthill, heat.” But nature can only distract her for so long—and when she gets to the witch’s home, she balks.

The woman can tell why Nefer has come, but Nefer, for no identifiable reason, refuses the woman’s implied offer of assistance, so readers get no opportunity to gauge whether her powers are spiritual, herbal, or both. Gallardo offers only Nefer’s impression that the “entire world is concentrated in [the witch’s] face: the world with all its roads, trails, fields, furrows, rivers, and clouds.” It’s easy to imagine Nefer, who takes such comfort in naming thistles and communing with her horse, growing into such a woman herself—but it’s also plain that her family won’t let her.

Gallardo presents Nefer’s mother, Doña María, as an avatar of Catholic conformity. This constantly puts her at odds with Nefer, who seems to be the lone heir to the family’s indigenous past. Nefer’s paternal grandmother’s “blood flared up in her veins,” Gallardo writes.


Nefer had barely known the woman and yet she lived on inside her. The grandmother who wandered the Carhué lagoons and the sandy fields of the Indian encampments to the west; the dark-skinned grandmother who died at the age of one hundred without a hint of grey, a terrifying wisdom in her words. Mamá never spoke of the woman because her own bloodline had come from Italy on both sides.

Doña María dominates the home, and she wants badly to suppress Nefer’s wildness and the heritage it connotes. She calls her daughter a “little hussy” and “piece of trash” just for leaving the house during siesta, and on learning of Nefer’s pregnancy she offers no sympathy at all. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that Nefer could have been assaulted. She just demands, “What have you done?” and brings her daughter to the city to see a doctor.

Here the plot explodes. Suddenly Nefer has access to the abortion she’s been seeking—or might have access: Doña María gives her daughter orders but does not disclose her plans. But when her mother announces after the doctor visit that tomorrow Nefer’s pregnancy will be over, Nefer declares, “Nobody’s going to lay a finger on me.” Unlike in the scene in which she turns down the witch’s help, her motivation here is clear: a sudden sense that it’s her and her baby against her mother and everyone her mother wants to please. Her “former tormentor has become her friend,” Gallardo writes, “her companion in a private world, which, until only a few days ago, was untainted by outside words and prying eyes.”

A more sentimental novel might end on this note: Nefer newly attached to her baby and determined to carry to term. January keeps moving, with a new relationship to the central question of whether Nefer will have an abortion. After the visit to the doctor, it’s clear to both Nefer and the reader that what matters most to Nefer is her autonomy. She cares about having the right to choose—which is a right her mother is set on denying her. After Nefer refuses the abortion, Doña María disavows arranging it, claiming, “It can’t actually be done. The police would take you away.” Nefer, though, can immediately cite two examples of richer women who ended pregnancies and were not arrested.

Doña María ignores her and drags her home, then threatens to bring “visitors” who Nefer assumes will “no doubt be the patrona with a doctor or nurse.” Nefer awaits these visitors, seemingly passive but in fact locked in inner conflict. Doña Mercedes is both a moral and a literal authority in her community. If she wants Nefer to have an abortion, that’s what’s going to happen. At first, Nefer grieves the “silent friend who fills her days” and vows to fight the doctor, but then she remembers that Doña Mercedes—who is, after all, the one who arranges the town’s yearly mission—considers abortion “worse than a crime.” This thought brings Nefer no relief. “She had resolved to defend herself,” Gallardo writes, but “evidently she had also hoped to become free.”

Here, very close to the end, Gallardo changes January’s relationship to the abortion question one more time. In a standard abortion plot, the major questions are whether the heroine will or will not succeed in terminating her pregnancy, and whether she will die or be arrested as a result. Gallardo complicates this plotline by introducing the question of whether Nefer will be forced to end a pregnancy she suddenly might want.

Nefer does not guess how her freedom will end. She sits and waits for Doña Mercedes, thinking, “The patrona will fix the problem. But, if she’s not bringing a doctor, what’s there to fix?” She decides her godmother will bring the priest, who, through confession, will get the “sin [to] leave her.” But Doña Mercedes turns out to be worried not about sin itself but about the social repercussions of having a girl who has visibly sinned on her land. Her solution is revealed when she arrives with Nicolás, the rapist, who delivers a fumbling monologue beginning, “Who would have thought that we…that so soon…so soon, no? That we’ll be married?”

Nefer hardly responds to the revelation that she is going to be married off to Nicolás. If she replies to his speech—which isn’t a proposal, just a recognition of a fait accompli—the reader doesn’t get to hear what she says. In the novel’s few remaining pages, she barely speaks. She doesn’t ride her horse again, or pet Capitán, her favorite dog. Nicolás’s arrival immediately crushes her spirit. It is the ultimate denial of choice. She won’t get to terminate or embrace her pregnancy; she won’t get to marry a man she wants or likes; she’s going to be forced to live in town with someone who’s “working at the butcher shop now,” hacking up the animals Nefer loves. She is effectively her community’s prisoner, a would-be wild girl whose inherited “centuries of guile” aren’t enough to stop her getting shoved into the role of Catholic wife. Doña Mercedes even writes a note telling her so: “Remember that marriage is a sacrament,” it says, in “handwriting so large that the letter seems to scream.”

January was the first Argentine novel to deal with abortion, and it became a touchstone in Argentine feminists’ twenty-first-century fight for the right to choose. In 2020 abortion was legalized up to fourteen weeks, a restrictive deadline that still represented a major victory. Argentina’s legal code holds medical professionals to a minimum standard of abortion and postabortion care that includes “dignified treatment, privacy, confidentiality, autonomy”—the very things Nefer is denied.

It would be easy, and not entirely wrong, to say that Nefer’s right to self-determination gets taken away simply because she’s female. Nicolás grabs her from her sister’s wedding reception as if she were just another glass of wine. But Nicolás appears only at January’s beginning and end; he seems hardly to interest Gallardo. She spends much more time on Doña María and Doña Mercedes, the two women who should nurture and care for Nefer but instead strip her of her freedom, dignity, and selfhood.

In Doña María’s eyes, Nefer is a “troublesome” youngest daughter whose indigenous heritage manifests in a spirit that must be crushed; to Doña Mercedes, Nefer is equal parts sinner and child, a wayward girl who needs the Church and a man to control her. It’s worth noting that in his monologue, Nicolás apologizes to Nefer, blaming alcohol for the assault. His apology is clumsy and not meant to make readers forgive him, but it does indicate that he sees her humanity more than her own mother does.

Gallardo ends January without hope. In the novel’s final pages, Nefer takes first a wagon and then a train to meet her fate—her soon-to-be husband, that is—at the mission. In the wagon, she feels herself “skimming over the surface of the earth, viewing the countryside from above.” Another person might love such a perspective. For Nefer, a girl of the land, it means she has been severed from herself.

Before I got pregnant, I thought carrying a child would entail a loss of self-determination. It seemed so from the outside: pregnant people are told to forgo or cut back on coffee and alcohol, change their diet, submit to all kinds of medical procedures or midwifery, all for the sake of another being who temporarily lives inside them. But once it was my turn, I understood that if a pregnancy is freely chosen, the submissions and renunciations that come with it—except, it’s important to say, some of the medical ones—are choices, too. Pretending otherwise is an insult to anyone forced to carry a pregnancy to term against their will. Sara Gallardo, who gave birth to four children, must have understood that. In January, Nefer’s dignity and autonomy don’t hinge, ultimately, on whether or not she continues her pregnancy. They hinge on whether she gets to decide.