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.
In “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.