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Kalpa Imperial
Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin
Small Beer Press, 246 pages

Kalpa Imperial
Angélica Gorodischer
Angélica Gorodischer was born in Buenos Aires in 1929 and has lived, from her childhood, in Rosary (Santa Fe) with her husband and three children. She is the daughter of the writer Angelica de Arcal (1905-1975).

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A review by David Soyka

Originally published in the author's native Argentina in 1983 as two separate volumes, this collection of loosely related stories translated from the original Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin marks Angélica Gorodischer's first appearance in English, though she has 17 novels to her credit and evidently a considerable literary reputation. If Kalpa Imperial is at all representative of her work, Gorodischer is a fabulist in the tradition of fellow Latin American Jorge Luis Borges.

This Small Beer Press edition is subtitled, "The Greatest Empire that Never Was." Though I of course have no way of knowing the author's actual intentions, the tagline suggests that the book could be read as an "anti-Tolkienesque" fantasy. The whole point of the widely-imitatied "world-building" Tolkien pioneered is to construct a series of tales that adhere to certain rules and behaviors (some would say clichés) as if it were a reality, however alternate it may be to our ordinary version. Just as Cheever's Waspish suburbanites of 50s America realistically adhere to their milieu, so too does the disenfranchised son/daughter of the fabled good king strive to overcome the evildoers with the help of a rebel band of elves in a pre-defined, "realistic" role-playing way.

But the Kalpa Imperial contains no maps, no genealogies, no action figures, no linguistic glossary, no recurring characters. A number of emperors appear who, for the most part, are neither entirely evil, nor entirely good, sometimes wise, sometimes not-so-wise, for the most part somewhere in the middle. While there may be mention of the history of a ruling house, there is no connection drawn between the eras of different imperial dynasties. The names sound significant, but probably mean nothing. Everything takes place at one time or another in some vaguely medieval setting, though there are hints of more technological advancement that were rejected for a simpler way of life. Cities are built, cities crumble to ruin. Whether it's for any larger purpose or not, whether it matters, depends on how you look at things.

We know what we know because the storyteller, the unnamed narrator who constantly reminds us that we are reading not only a story, but a story recounted according to the way the narrator wants to tell it. Which has a lot to do with the art of storytelling and nothing at all to do with history. Or the pretense of a history. As the storyteller explains (or at least seems to explain):

"All these works of the imaginative inventions unfortunately got into chronicles, which were made into books which everyone respected and believed, principally because they were thick, hard to hold, tedious and old. And they got into legends, those tales that everybody says they don't believe in because they can't take them seriously, and that everybody believes in precisely because they can't take them seriously. And they are sung as ballads, which are insidious because they pass so easily about the town squares, and the ports, and the dance halls. And none of it was true, none of it, none of the romantic origins, none of the melodious and fantastical names."
The storyteller would have us believe that only he can tell "what really happened," if only because what he recounts is neither noble nor high adventure. It is comprised mostly of little ironies and contradictions. It is sometimes fairly mundane in the overall scheme of things, soon forgotten except by those who need to tell us about it, though whether we can ever truly understand what we are told is perhaps not the point. The point is to tell the story, which includes:

A young prince learns of his mother's betrayal of his father from two odd fellows that talk about ferrets. A thief accused of being a deserter (though he was never a soldier) is brought before a general who attempts to sodomize him; the thief cleverly saves himself, but at great destructive cost. An era comes, an era passes and does it really make that much of a difference? Bureaucrats act like, well, bureaucrats, focusing on their own petty concerns at the expense of the well-being of their employers. An ill emperor is instructed to draw pictures of trees; his doctor needs to choose between the duties of love (or at least the promise of it) and the duties of not only his profession, but his humanity. The ultimate significance of which is perhaps best described in this piece of dialogue:

"'And what does that mean?' he asked.

"'What it means.' "

You are constantly reminded that we you are reading is a story, and whether it's made up or not has nothing to do with its ultimate veracity. It is a story. As Gorodischer, speaking through a character identified only as "the Archivist," explains it:
"All that's as true or false as any tale."

Copyright © 2003 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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