Paul Di Filippo reviews Angélica Gorodischer

Would you care to name a famous fantasist from Argentina? If you named Jorge Luis Borges or Alberto Manguel, bravo! Your World Fantastika Radar is working well. But if you named Angélica Gorodischer, your literary antennae are truly super-sensitive and tuned into a phenomenon rare and delightful.

In her native land, Gorodischer is applauded and awarded, even given the title of “Illustrious Citizen.” Here, she is pretty much unknown, among either genre fans or mainstream readers. Google her name, and she gets fewer hits than R. A. Lafferty, who is a benchmark for overlooked genius. That anyone in the English-speaking world is acquainted with her works is down to the smarts and energy and marketing skills of Kelly Link and Gavin Grant at Small Beer Press. They are the ones who brought us the first English version of Gorodischer’s masterwork, Kalpa Imperial, a couple of years ago. Of course, having Ursula K. Le Guin onboard to produce a vivid, beautiful, poetic and majestic translation did not hurt either.

Kalpa Imperial is one of those sui generis books that resonate with other chimerical texts only along the lines of uniqueness. I’m thinking of books like Le Guin’s own Always Coming Home; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin; Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegana; Christopher Priest’s The Islanders; or J. R. R Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It shares with at least the newer of these predecessors a tone and style that is at once postmodern and anachronistic. The matter of Kalpa Imperial and the manner of telling are both eternal and timely, a blend of the fabulous and the quotidian.

A representative slice of the vast and ancient pre-technological Empire of Gorodsicher’s imagination is presented to us as a series of gemlike stories, most narrated overtly by a nameless storyteller who emerges on the page in his or her own right as a memorably crusty and opinionated character. Gorodischer’s concerns and themes, embodied in striking, often Kafkaesque scenarios, are big ones. Power versus powerlessness. Elites versus commoners. Love versus hatred. Freedom versus duty. The present moment versus the weight of history. Her plots meander organically and hypnotically, through what John Crowley in Engine Summer called “snake hands,” seemingly arbitrary narrative detours that actually refractively constitute and illuminate the whole tale. The book as a whole forms a luminous portal to “the greatest empire that never was.”

Gorodischer’s newest from Small Beer is Trafalgar, and it’s pure science fiction. (This time around, the fluid translation is by Amalia Gladhart.) Ten stories are narrated by one Trafalgar Medrano, a lively and likable space merchant, a rogue and raconteur who, despite being born in 1936 and inhabiting our familiar contemporary world, nonetheless manages inexplicably to be an interstellar traveler in an exotic galactic milieu, returning at intervals to a certain Argentine bar, the Burgundy, to entertain his friends with accounts of his adventures.

Immediately this scenario calls to mind similar tall-tale works by Arthur C. Clarke, Spider Robinson, Stanislaw Lem, Lord Dunsany, L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt, Sterling Lanier, Ernest Bramah, and Italo Calvino. Additionally, the comic tone invokes Robert Sheckley, while the anthropological quirkiness of the alien cultures calls to mind the work of Jack Vance. That Gorodischer fits so neatly into this spectrum and holds her own with these giants is tribute to her talents and to her affinity for the genre.

In “By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon,” Trafalgar has a disturbing sexual encounter with the matriarchs of Veroboar. “The Sense of the Circle” depicts a seemingly brutish and primitive culture which nevertheless seduces a scientist to go dingo. In “Of Navigators,” far across the universe Trafalgar finds a world exactly parallel to Earth, except 500 years offset in history, and so he chooses to remake the life of Columbus. “The Best Day of the Year” namechecks Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut to produce a hairy odyssey that sends Trafalgar across time. Trafalgar proves that he is not just a voyeur or trickster in “The González Family’s Fight for a Better World.” Encountering the oppressive situation of a selfish minority ruling a hapless majority on the planet of Gonzwaledworkamen-jkaleidos—González for short—our hero saves the day with some neat technology. Trafalgar is offstage for “Trafalgar and Josefina,” when fusty old Aunt Josefina comes calling on our hero’s amanuensis and recounts the amusing adventure when Trafalgar ran afoul of a peculiar caste system. Trafalgar encounters a fellow in “Mr. Chaos” who is either the only madman in a world of totally sane people, or the only sane person in a world of madmen. “Constancia” relates the tale of a woman living alone on a world, in hiding from some onerous and weird ceremonial duties. Trafalgar’s illegitimate and surprising uncanny daughter holds centerstage in “Strelitzias, Lagerstroemias, and Gypsophila,” while a brief piercing coda concludes the volume under the header of “Trafalgar and I.”

Gorodischer’s fecund and playful sense of invention is dazzling here, especially in the roll call of perfectly contrived larksome proper names. Her style is more jaunty and modern, less baroque than in Kalpa Imperial, giving the sense that Trafalgar is right at your elbow, hoisting a beer. The banter between Trafalgar and his interlocutors, particularly his female Boswell, is sprightly and fun. This follow-up to Kalpa, while less weighty and seemingly more inconsequential in effect, demonstrates Gorodischer’s talents and range just as effectively.

At age 84, perched atop a major canon, Angélica Gorodischer deserves to loom high in the ranks of contemporary fantasists. But such a justified reward will come only if her work is more widely disseminated, through readerly applause and reviewer attention, and the laudable efforts of publishers like Small Beer Press.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

One thought on “Paul Di Filippo reviews Angélica Gorodischer

  • February 22, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    I absolutely loved Kalpa Imperial. Can’t wait to read this “new” one!


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