Angelica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar

Trafalgar gorodischer 1618730320.02.LZZZZZZZSmall presses have their niche, The Atlantic tells us. As big publishers gamble on potential best-sellers, small presses fill the gap with obscure  literary books.  (Well, sometimes they are literary.)

One such niche publisher is Small Beer Press, founded by writer Kelly Link (Get in Trouble) and her husband Gavin Grant.  Small Beer publishes science fiction and fantasy: in addition to short stories by  Ursula K. Le Guin, Joan Aiken, and Karen Joy Fowler, they published Sofia Samatar’s first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, which won the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award in 2014.

I learned about the Argentine science fiction writer Angelica Gorodischer (published in translation by Small Beer) from Jo Walton’s remarkable book about rereading SF, What Makes This Book So Great. She understands the difficulty of translation.  She writes,

There’s one way around the problem of clunky translation and that’s having a world-class English stylist do the translating for you. It doesn’t happen often, but we’re lucky it ever happens. Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial is wonderful.

Le Guin’s translation of Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial: The Story of an Empire That Never Was is surely a classic in any genre.  First published in 1983 in Argentina, it is a strange, often surreal collection of legends and a  history of an imaginary empire that spans thousands of years. It is like being on  a  trip guided by Calvino, Herodotus, and Le Guin herself.

I expected to enjoy Gorodischer’s Trafalgar, also published by Small Beer Press, a collection of tales told by the eccentric hero, Trafalgar Medrano, who claims to have traveled to unknown planets in distant solar systems.

The slangy short sentences in Amalia Gladhart’s translation are completely unlike the baroque web of words we find in Kalpa Imperial.  I missed the poeticism.  Well, style isn’t everything.  The book opens cleverly with a two-page Who’s Who entry about Trafalgar, an affluent doctor’s son who did not pursue medicine as his parents hoped,  but rather has become a rich successful interplanetary businessman, or so he claims in his tall tales.  The ten stories are told in easygoing dialogues between the narrator, a prosperous lawyer, and Trafalgar. Trafalgar is a coffee fiend–he drinks endless cups of coffee during their chitchat at the Burgundy bar–but mainly tells his latest stories of travel to distant planets.  The narrator  frequently interrupts with  questions or sarcastic comments:  “The what did you say?”  or “That’s it how?  They wrote a whole history book for that stupid little story?”

My question is, Are those questions English?

The first tale, “By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon,” is one of my favorites.  On the planet Veroboa, which is run by an “aristomatriarchy” of a thousand women,  or at least female-like people, Trafalgar makes the mistake of selling comic books (well, he didn’t know they were illegal). The events on the planet itself proceed rather like a comic book story.  He is summoned by the governor, who is blonde, “with a pair of legs that if you saw them, you’d have an attack,” and she rebukes him for the comics.

He adds,

“There’s no need to recite the whole conversation.  Besides, I don’t remember it.  Those witches had executed the poor guy who tried to sell my comic books,” he drank a little more coffee, “and they had confiscated the material and decided I was a delinquent.”

He learns he must be interviewed by another member of the Central Government,  the Enlightened and Chaste Lady Guinivera Lapis Lazuli.  She keeps canceling appointments, and he is forbidden to leave the hotel, but finally he gets fed up and bribes a waiter  to give him her home address.  He finds her naked in bed in her hideous marble palace, staring at him with desire, so he gets into bed and they have fabulous sex:  she keeps calling him Mandrake.   It turns outs  she  hooked up to a virtual sex machine, which Trafalgar switched off, not knowing what it was, and when she realizes she is in bed with an actual man instead of fantasy Mandrake, she goes berserk.

In “The González Family’s Fight for a Better World,” he visits the planet Gonzwaledworkamen-jkaleidos (called Gonzalez for short). It turns out the undead rule the  planet:  While Trafalgar is having sex with his temporary landlady, her dead husband shows up to pick a fight. The dead aren’t buried, because they won’t stay dead, and they are more annoying than anything.  Trafalgar schemes a way to keep them dead.

I also enjoyed “Constanza,” in which a lone queenly woman (who reminds Trafalgar of Nefertiti) is hiding in the ruins of a bleak planet, armed and ready to shoot to kill.  She tells two tales of who she is:  like Trafalgar, she may or may not be telling the truth. A very strange story.

This collection of stories is not quite for me.  The content is sometimes amusing, but I found Gladhart’s  translation very awkward.  I am, however, looking forward to reading Gorodischer’s Prodigies, a novel translated by Sue Burke.   How fascianting that  three different translators were hired to translate Gorodischer’s books.

Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial

Kalpa Imperial Angelica Gorodischer 41ltT36E3JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial is a remarkable  novel.

First published in 1983 in Argentina and in 2003 in the U.S.,  it is a stunning mix of realism and the surreal.  It is breathtakingly lyrical, with long, running sentences that can go on for pages.  Set in “the greatest empire that never was,” it is stylistically a cross between Italo Calvino’s stories and Herodotus’s The Histories.    Gorodischer’s strange book is a collection of legends, geography, and (invented) stories of emperors and common people.  It also has traces of a Homeric epic, which at one point mischievously satirizes the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Each story begins with a storyteller who knows, or at least shapes, the story. The storyteller will say, “I’m the one who can tell you what really happened, because it’s the storyteller’s job to speak the truth even when the truth lacks the brilliance of invention…”

The first sentence of the novel begins,

The storyteller said:  Now that the good winds are blowing, now that we’re done with days of anxiety and nights of terror, now that there are no more denunciation, persecutions, secret executions, and whim and madness have departed from the heart of the Empire, and we and our children aren’t playthings of blind power; now that a just man sits on the Golden Throne and people look peacefully out of their doors to see if the weather’s fine and plan their vacations and kids go to school and actors put their hearts into their lines and girls fall in love and old men dies in their beds and poets sings and  jewelers weight gold behind their little windows…

The episodes are partly comic, partly tragic.   In “Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities,” the emperor Drauwdo points at a map and commands that a city be built there.   Then he forgets about it.  His descendents have no idea there is a city there.   And at first it is a poor city:  “There were more suicides than schoolmasters, more drunks than mathematicians, more cardsharp than musicians…”  But then a sculptor moves in, followed by artists and writers.  Years later, the  emperor Mezsiadar III the Ascetic, who spent “so much time and so much energy in doing good that he succeed in doing as much harm as twenty emperors…” of evil habits, is suspicious of art and destroys it.

angelica gorodischer goroIn “Portrait of the Empress,” a rich merchant’s wife cures the emperor of his illness with magic stones, becomes his advisor,  and makes governing “not a heavy legacy but a vocation, an adventure.”  She becomes the empress.

“Down There in the South” is my favorite:  the story of Liel-Andrassador, a rich usurer who  becomes a fugitive after he kills a well-connected royal gambler who accused him of rigging the game, which he had done. After many adventures he reaches the South,  where he finds philosophy, wisdom, and a new name.  How he becomes an emperor is surprising.

Gorodischer, considered one of the best science fiction and fantasy writers in Argentina since the 1960s, said in a 1989 interview in Bomb Magazine that life in Argentina was surreal.

We are a people with a bad memory, a people hostile to memory. Old houses, the national library, the national archives—we destroy the very things that constitute our country’s memory. The country lacks an abiding urge to accumulate, safeguard and circulate reliable documentation. The crucial task of the writer here is to remember, to try to remember. Not that we should all literally note down facts and events. But memory is inscribed in a literary text in a process I don’t think anyone really understands.

There are obviously parallels between Kalpa Imperial and Argentina, though I certainly cannot expound on Argentine history

Translated by the award-winning science fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kalpa Imperial was published by Small Beer Press in 2001.