by Angélica Gorodischer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although billed as a novel, Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial is really a collection of related short stories, or, perhaps, fables, all set in the world of the greatest empire which has ever existed. Originally published in Gorodischer’s native Argentina in two volumes in 1983, Kalpa Imperial, the collection reads almost, but not quite, like a novel.
Gorodischer does an excellent job of presenting a fully realized empire whose history and culture is omnipresent, although much of it is only implied within the framework of the stories Gorodischer’s anonymous story-teller (or story-tellers, it is neither clear nor important whether the same storyteller appears in each of the tales). The stories all stand on their own, and even reading through all of them, the reader is not able to come to a conclusive history of the Empire, or, in fact, the order in which the events related take place.
For the most part, the characters who wander through Gorodischer’s various tales are unimportant. The real star of the novel is the empire in which they dwell. All of the stories have ties to the ruler of the Empire, even if the emperors (or empresses) don’t always make an appearance in the story. Despite this, the characters Gorodischer describes do come to life, as both a mixture of good and bad rulers, as well as good and bad people. While comparisons can be drawn between many of her emperors and the rulers of the Roman empire (or any other empire/country), there are no direct analogies, which helps strengthen her world and make it seem more like a real place.
Because Gorodischer relates most of her stories through the voice of the storyteller, there is a slight distance to the tales. The reader is not experiencing them as they “happen,” but rather through the lens of having “happened.” This also allows Gorodischer to provide commentary not only on the events she is describing, but also on the methodology of storytelling. In at least one of the stories, “Portrait of the Empress,” the storyteller takes an active role in the tale, which serves to highlight the question of narrative ambiguity as the reader questions his portrayal of events he saw first hand.
It is almost traditional for fantasy novels which deal with massive empires and great events to include a map of their world and, almost as often, appendices which show genealogies and timelines. Gorodischer includes neither of these, and the novel not only doesn’t suffer from their lack, but may actually be strengthened. It is clear that the people who live in the empire, which, we are told, would take a lifetime to traverse, do not know their history or geography. If they don’t have that knowledge, why should the reader?
Kalpa Imperial is not a novel, nor is it really a collection of stories. With no overarching plot or recurring characters (unless you assume there is only one storyteller), it feels like a collection of stories. However, those stories are closely related and form, if not a complete view of the Empire, at least a coherent view of the empire with tantalizing hints about the history and society which doesn’t appear. Whatever category of writing Kalpa Imperial falls into, it is also a book which is well worth reading.
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