Stories Among the Ruins: Angélica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial

By John Garrison

Kalpa Imperial cover

Just as many of the great rulers in Angélica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial come from humble beginnings, the book's first story starts simply and builds into a grand tale. In "Portrait of the Emperor," the reader meets Bib, a village boy whose choice to explore nearby, forbidden ruins ignites a rebirth of an empire -- and thus begins the vast history from which these stories are plucked. This first story is rich with the feeling of power and glory returning to the land, and also the possibility of great tales that will come after it. At the same time, the presence of these ruins also alludes to the mystery of the past: there may be as many stories before the start of this book as there are within it.

Fittingly, "kalpa" of the book's title is the Sanskrit word for a unit of time that comprises over four billion years. This sense of immensity of the empire's history meets its match with Gorodischer's imagination, which fills each story with original, fresh characters and situations. In this first story, she introduces the reader to themes that will become very familiar by the end of the book: unlikely ascensions to power, new cities built on the ruins of others, and the colorful narration of the storyteller.

Argentinean writer Angélica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial is a collection of eleven stories. It was originally published in Spanish in 1983 and is the first of her books to be translated into English. Gorodischer is a prolific writer with nineteen books including both novels and short story collections; Kalpa Imperial is widely regarded as a fantasy classic in the Spanish-speaking world. She is also a popular lecturer on fantastic narrative, gender and literature. In addition to numerous literary awards, she has been granted the "Dignity" Award by the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights for works and activity in women's rights.

And while Gorodischer's work has rightfully been compared to Borges, Calvino, Le Guin, and Kafka, these stories might also draw comparisons to the works of Philip K. Dick, particularly Valis, where the narrator entices the reader with the seemingly perplexing phrase "the empire never ended." Dick's narrator's insistence that the Roman Empire never fell and lies unseen all around us is reminiscent of the ruins encountered in the book's first story: these stories -- like this empire -- are deceptively simple, as they are built from complex components of a deep and richly imagined history.

What works in Kalpa Imperial -- and works very well -- is the beauty and lyricality of the writing. From rhythmic sentences that build for the better part of a page to short, pithy dialogue, the joy of reading the book comes from the language itself. Gorodischer effectively captures the essence of oral history style and rewards readers with a book that could (and should) be read aloud. The stories feel as archetypal as myths but as personal as good fiction, with clever low-born characters gloriously outsmarting high-born ones in moving and compelling situations. The storyteller who narrates most of the stories also adds to the excitement of these tales, often offering his own commentary or even -- like Umberto Eco's Baudolino -- perhaps inserting elements from his own imagination.

As with any translation, the credit for the beauty of the prose must be shared with the translator. The book is deftly translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, whose own earthy tone and interest in the role of "common folk" within sweeping historical events are a natural match for Kalpa Imperial. The translation feels seamless, with few unintentionally jarring or indecipherable moments. Reminiscent of Le Guin's Tehanu and Always Coming Home, the book offers seemingly simple stories about how grand events are ultimately made up of people's actions, inactions, emotions, needs, and wants. Fans of Le Guin will find Gorodischer's world familiar and enchanting.

It is to Gorodischer's great credit that these stories continue to keep the reader engaged. Each one presents a new fable in which everyday folk -- a thief, a dancer, or a gardener -- alter the course of an empire. At the same time, this threatens to be tedious on some occasions. The reader becomes trained that when a seemingly inconsequential character appears in the beginning of a story, only to disappear when the "real" narrative gets underway, it's highly likely she or he will show up again to play a pivotal role in the story's climax.

In addition to the first story described above, several others stand out as Kalpa Imperial's highlights.

In "The Two Hands," we hear the story of Emperor Orbad and his nameless usurper from a variety of perspectives: the storyteller, the archivist, the guard, the chambermaid, and the fisherman. This not only communicates for us how differing perspectives can impact what's recounted in oral history, but also how seemingly major events may have little effect on many people's lives. For example, the fisherman's contribution to the narrative is simply that he never saw the emperor; he goes on to explain that fishermen's lives are simply made up of fishing, marrying, and dying.

Similarly, "The Pool" focuses on an old doctor and a young girl who have the opportunity to play pivotal roles in the course of the empire. The two characters offer opposing views on the extent to which individuals can -- and should -- have any real impact on the progress of history.

In "The End of a Dynasty or The Natural History of Ferrets" (which can be read on the Small Beer Press site), the narrative is a bit more personal and delicately paced, allowing us to better understand the motivations of its characters. Like many of this book's stories, the central character is a young person, the prince and heir to the throne, and the reader is taken along for the ride as the boy learns the secrets of the kingdom he is set to rule. The eloquent prose here will remind readers of Le Guin at her best: the reader discovering the world of the novel through a child who is also discovering the world anew.

Taken as a whole, this collection of stories offers an expansive view of this fictional empire and celebrates it as a stomping ground for the writer's imagination. Gorodischer offers us not one but many points of view on this fantastical landscape -- revealing the power of the author and offering at least one answer to a question she leaves to her readers: "who is it who talks with blind poets, with fishermen who die everyday in their huts in the mud, with unhappy women, with tellers of tales?"

 

Copyright © 2004 John Garrison

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John Garrison is a developer for Strange Horizons. He is also a writer, poet, and essayist, and lives in San Francisco with his partner and their golden retriever. When not writing, he can often be found swing ballroom dancing.