Thursday, June 16, 2005

Stories of Empire

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer bills itself as a novel but in reality it is a series of eleven stories linked together by an unnamed storyteller or storytellers, we are never sure, and the overriding theme of the stories is "The Greatest Empire That Never Was." I was well into the book before I even realized this, so sure I was that it was a novel. The stories take place in no specified time though by the end I decided that it would have to be the nebulous future. Nor do the stories take place in any kind of chronological order and since none of them are tethered by dates or the same people, the events could be any time or no time. The stories are about the empire, and, although sometimes indirectly, about the emperor or empress who rules the empire. The empire is not a satire of any real country or government, it has no echoes of anything that currently exists, and to my knowledge, existed. It is a fully created world peopled with the comings and goings of power and human failings and courage. This does not mean, however, that the stories are not realistic. In the stories you'll find interesting observations like this one in "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities":

It's always good not to be stupid, and when it's the emperor who isn't stupid, people can have hope; not security, of course, but still, hope helps.
And this one from "Portrait of the Empress":
There she was born, there she grew up, there she got her education, in what may be the best school of government. Notice I say government, not power. Power, bah! she'd say, looking disillusioned. Only if you forget about power can you govern well, she'd say. And it was true. She forgot about the power she had, which was immense, and so power, ignored and disdained, courted her, trotted after her, like a prostitute fawning on a goodlooking wealthy man. But she despised it utterly and made it wait like a beggar at the palace gates.
One of my favorite stories, "The Pool," is about a rather Zen-like reclusive doctor who requires all of his patients come to him. Part holistic healer, part spiritual advisor, the people who go to him are always cured if they want to be. Here is a snippet of conversation between the good doctor and the girl who is his neighbor and curious as to what he is up to:
"So why are there so many sick people?" "Because it's easier to get sick than to look for one's right place in the world." "Explain, explain." "Yes," said the doctor. "We keep adding needless things, false things to ourselves, till we can't see ourselves and forget what our true shape is. And if we've forgotten what shape we are, how can we find the right place to be? And who dares pull away the falsities that are stuck to his eyelids, his fingernails, his heels? So then something goes wrong in the house and in the world, and we get sick."... "And we all have false things stuck to us?" "Almost all." They sat silent a while. "What's serious isn't having them," said the doctor, "what's serious is loving them."
Kalpa Imperial is an enjoyable book. The more I think about it, the more I like it. Ursula Le Guin translated the book from Spanish and did a stand up job. This is not Gorodischer's only book but it is the first translated into English. I hope it isn't the last.