Feb 18 2009 12:40pm

The beauty of lists: Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial

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

Kalpa Imperial was originally published in Spanish. Gorodischer is one of Argentina’s leading writers. I’d never heard of her until Le Guin began publishing this translation—I read part of it in the anthology Starlight 2 which is how I knew I wanted it and why I  picked it up as soon as it came out.

It isn’t like anything else. Well, a little like Borges perhaps, but much more approachable. And it’s a little like Le Guin’s own Changing Planes, but much better. I occasionally come across something where I read a page and then immediately read it again, more slowly, or even aloud, just out of sheer pleasure at the way the words go together. (The first chapter of Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, the beginning of McKinley’s Spindle’s End...) and this book is like that all the way through. This is how it starts:

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 denunciations, 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 die in their beds and poets sing and jewelers weigh gold behind their little windows and gardeners rake the parks and young people argue and innkeepers water the wine and teachers teach what they know and we storytellers tell old stories and archivists archive and fishermen fish and all of us can decide according to our talents and lack of talents what to do with our life -- now anyone can enter the emperor’s palace out of need or curiosity; anybody can visit that great house which was for so many years forbidden, prohibited, defended by armed guards, locked and as dark as the souls of the Warrior Emperors of the dynasty of the Ellydrovides.

Isn’t that lovely? If your answer to that is “No!” then don’t go any further, because what that sentence has is what the book has, in miniature.

Kalpa Imperial isn’t exactly a novel. It’s more like a collection of related short stories, or a very fanciful history book. And it isn’t exactly fantasy—there isn’t any real magic. It’s the history of an Empire that never was. A lot of time passes. Dynasties rise and fall. Even the empire falls and is reborn. We have all tech levels from nomadic hunters to planes and cars, not necessarily in a sequence you’d expect. A number of the individual stories have the story nature, but some of them are interesting in the non-fiction way. They don’t relate a history so much as a series of vignettes, so that they echo in a macro-structure way this amazing style that evokes by listing and naming.

I really enjoyed the book the first time I read it, and I really enjoyed it again now. The first time I took the whole thing entirely on a fantastical level—why shouldn’t an Argentinian write about an imaginary empire, or why should it have any significance? But this time I was wondering about that, about what it means that someone from a new country with a quite short history should write about an incredibly ancient country with a convoluted history? This wasn’t written as a fantasy novel, though it’s entirely readable as one, and I don’t have the context this book was written in. It doesn’t open any windows on Argentinian culture for me, or illuminate anything but itself. I may be—am, I’m sure—missing a lot of levels. But nevertheless, what there is to be gleaned on the surface is well worth having. It’s gorgeous, and a lot of fun, and the stories are lovely.

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
This has been on my shelf for a while now, and I really have to find time for it. I'm actually in the mood for it *right* *now*, but I have other commitments . . .

(This installment of "oh, for a time machine!" has been brought to you by the letter K and the number ∞.)
DG Lewis
2. DG Lewis
You say it didn't open any windows on Argentinian culture for you, but I was struck by how that opening sentence read like the end of the Galtieri junta - so maybe it did open windows without you even realizing it.

And Argentina (as an independent country) isn't that much younger than the US - and older than Canada.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
I think of all the countries in the New World as being young. And Argentina is no doubt just as connected to history in Spanish Europe as English and French speaking countries in North America are. I just feel I am reading Kalpa Imperial out of context and in a state of vast ignorance of what the context ought to be -- I like it, but I'm hoping some better informed readers with more context will chime in.

(One of the reasons I picked it up to re-read just now, actually, was being reminded of that beginning by the feeling my American friends have been sharing about Obama's inauguration.)
Jer Brown
4. designguybrown
Comment from Amazon that just seemed to get my thoughts out perfectly about this book:

"... The habit of having a storyteller for every tale makes the characters distant so that you don't end up caring about them, and the scenery less vivid. This technique is supposed to give them the universal wisdom of fables but what the stories and characters tend to achieve is either common sense or a sort of vague mysticism that doesn't really accomplish the amount of depth it would need to have in this style of work...."
ennead ennead
5. ennead
If you like Kalpa Imperial, you should check out Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars. It is also the account of a lost culture, told in a very unusual yet appropriate form.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Designguybrown: Well, there are enough characters for me. Though I suppose some of it has the charm of creative non-fiction -- the one about the city in the mountains for instance. But I liked the device of the storyteller -- it set up the surprise where the storyteller became the lover of the Great Empress and the father of the next emperor.
Steven Torres-Roman
7. torresroman
I run a speculative ficiton book discussion group, and Kalpa Imperial was our January selection. Unfortunately, while I fell in love with it and tried to share some of the in-jokes that a Spanish-speaker might catch, the rest of the group seemed unimpressed. Ah, well.
Liza .
8. aedifica
ennead @ 6: That works as a recommendation in reverse for me, thanks. I liked Pavic's Dictionary (did you read the male version, the female version, or both?), so your recommendation makes me more likely to pick up Kalpa Imperial.
Sally Brackett
9. sallybrackett
I began this book and then had to return it so I could return to college. I would love to find it again. Does anyone have any tips on finding it in Spanish? I would like to improve my Spanish reading abilities. I'm somewhat torn on what language I would like to read it in.
DG Lewis
10. Randwolf
"But this time I was wondering about that, about what it means that someone from a new country with a quite short history should write about an incredibly ancient country with a convoluted history?"

But it not. It is an ancient country (actually several ancient countries) with a convoluted history which has been hidden, probably beyond recall. One of the survivals of that history is the complex poetic manner of expression of those cultures, in the culture of their conquerors.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Randwolf: It's a new country in the geography of several older lost histories. (Like the US.) I do wonder -- but don't know because I don't have the context -- if that has anything to do with Gorodischer's desire to write this book. In the US this sort of thing generally works as a connection back towards Europe and medieval history.
DG Lewis
12. Emgre
This is one of those books that I love and haven't finished. I might as well shelve it alongside poetry, because I read it in the same sort of relaxed, occasional dips.

On the whole I think it's much more useful to think of this as "storyteller's poetry" than a novel or set of short stories -- plot and character in the popular sense aren't really the book's principal engines. I pick it up, rather, for voice and cadence and a particularly fable-y richness of detail.
DG Lewis
13. Randwolf
Jo: could be. Unlike in Europe, the older history has been near-totally obliterated, which is going to make for a different response. Though perhaps that obliteration happened earlier, with the Roman empire.
Jason Henninger
14. jasonhenninger
This sounds wonderful. Thanks for the review. I've never heard of this book before.

I've always been fond of the word "kalpa." One definition of a kalpa I've heard is that if there were a cube of stone as far across as an army could walk in a day, and every thousand years a heavenly creature brushed it with its wings, it would take a small kalpa to wear the stone to dust. And that's just a small kalpa. There's the nayuta asamkya kalpa which is like a kalpa of kalpas. Fascinating the lengths we'll go to in order to approximate the infinite.

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