Friday, October 17, 2008

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

Kalpa Imperial is the product of celebrated Argentinean author Angélica Gorodischer. No less an authority than Ursula K. Le Guin provides the translation. It is a loose collection of stories that share a common setting, the empire of the title: the “Greatest Empire that Never Was.” In some ways Kalpa is a traditional fantasy milieu—a monarchy with strict hierarchies that keep getting overthrown every few generations, based on the glory of the past, without much technology above that needed to sail ships and build castles. However, its stories share the tone of fantasy more than the trappings; one doesn’t find much in the way of overt magic here, certainly no guiding wizards. While some farm boys make good, they do it mostly through their own efforts and luck, not via being a “Chosen One” of some nature. In many ways the stories in “Kalpa Imperial” read more like historical fiction set in a time and place that never existed.

The sense that things were better in the old days suffuses all the stories. The opening story “Portrait of the Emperor” tells of the founding of the empire, but even then the first emperor builds upon the ruins that he alone has the courage to explore. The Golden Throne upon which he sits was not built by him or his craftsman, it is a relic from days when people achieved more than we could ever imagine. This sense pervades all the stories: the characters never believe that they are living in golden days, they never believe that they are achieving a pinnacle of any sort. The times they live in are always somewhat decadent, somewhat violent, somewhat degraded.

This sense is possibly a human universal; it certainly dates back to our earliest writings. Homer speaks repeatedly of how much better men were during the Heroic age (i.e., The Trojan War) than we mere mortals that make up his audience. In the Iliad he writes: “Aeneas seized a great stone, so huge that two men, as men now are, would be unable to lift it, but Aeneas wielded it quite easily.” Tennyson captures this feeling most beautifully at the end of his poem Ulysses:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Of course, Tennyson is much more optimistic than Gorodischer’s storyteller. These storytellers (each story except the last starts with the phrase “The storyteller said:") seem to have a mission to make sure that those listening do not harbor too many illusions. At the beginning of my favorite story in the book (“Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities”):
The storyteller said: They gave all kinds of names to it, they made up all kinds of origins for it, and all of them were false. The names were mere inventions of obscure, scheming little men whose sole ambition was to get one step higher on a miserable official ladder or obtain a place among the palace lickspittles or a little extra money to satisfy some petty vanity. And the origins were laborious artifacts constructed to display some influential personage as a descendant of the hero who was supposed to have founded it in a fit of divine madness.

The story goes on to relate the “true” history of the city—from its beginning as a stopping post between the capital and the ports, its first mayor who was the only survivor of a bunch of bandits wiped out by the militia, its subsequent rises, falls, periods of being in favor and out of favor. It tells the story of the city, not of the people within it although they sometimes surface. In a way it is like an Olaf Stapledon story, covering an individual microcosm in the same way he tackled the universe. There’s something both real and world-weary in the way the tale is related: regular folks, good and bad, make decisions almost randomly that later generations build up into acts of greatness or folly—legends add grandeur to banal reality. While one would imagine that in the normal course of things storytellers would be the main perpetrators of this sort of heroic white-washing, these storytellers don’t countenance that sort of thing. They put the smallness back in the stories of the “great,” and for that alone this books stands as a nice counter-balance to much high/epic fantasy.

This is not to say that the stories aren’t interesting! I don’t want to make this sound like a depressing or boring short story collection. These stories tell of rebellions both successful and un-, revenge and obsession, good leaders and bad ones, insane ones, insane ones who are also good ones, and battles for reasons good and bad.

The Empire has never been able to conquer the lands to the South, but often tries. The final story, “The Old Incense Road” finally tells us a little bit about the South itself—at which point one’s knowledge of the book’s context makes it hard to avoid overlaying allegorical elements onto the narrative. The South is hotter and more tropical, less technological and more tribal, with a slower pace of life—standing in a similar relation to the Empire that South America does to the United States. The Empire never understands the challenges of operating there and certainly does not grasp the cultural differences and their import. One man from the Empire ends up, through a series of random happenstances, sort of “going native,” spawning legends about himself as he wanders through the jungle, rumors which are then misinterpreted by Empire intelligence agents. At this point one need must remember that “Kalpa Imperial” was originally published in 1983 although it wasn’t translated until 2003. While most of the stories are not “political” in the sense of bearing on contemporary politics (they are very political in the sense of dealing with governance and power relationships), “Incense Road” may strike a little closer to home. Various Western superpowers have been meddling in places they fail to understand long before our current misadventures in the Middle East, and certain South American countries still bear the scars of some of that meddling.

Kalpa Imperial is an impressive collection of short stories. In their tone of decay they remind me somewhat of “New Weird” authors Jeff VanderMeer and China Mieville, although she obviously predates them by a decade or two. Still, that feeling of urban realism in a fantastic setting, of people and politics driving events instead of magic, binds them together. I was a little disappointed that the stories did not feel more exotic or foreign—aside from the parts about the South, most of the stories deal with a realm similar in most ways to those found in Western history and fantasy literature. Of course, Argentina is a country with a thriving European culture (especially in Buenos Aires) made up of numerous ex patriates who settled in the exotic continent of South America—it makes sense that the Western literary tradition would be the primary influence on these stories. Nonetheless, I hope to see more of Gorodischer’s work translated in the future; if not by the masterful Le Guin, then at least by somebody. It would surely take a uniquely incompetent translator to ruin the work of such a talented author.

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