Author: Angélica Gorodischer
Translator: Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by: Small Beer Press
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
This is the first of Argentinean writer Angélica Gorodischer’s nineteen award-winning books to be translated into English. In eleven chapters, Kalpa Imperial‘s multiple storytellers relate the story of a fabled nameless empire which has risen and fallen innumerable times. Fairy tales, oral histories and political commentaries are all woven tapestry-style into Kalpa Imperial: beggars become emperors, democracies become dictatorships, and history becomes legends and stories.
But this is much more than a simple political allegory or fable. It is also a celebration of the power of storytelling. Gorodischer and translator Ursula K. Le Guin are a well-matched, sly and delightful team of magician-storytellers. Rarely have author and translator been such an effortless pairing. Kalpa Imperial is a powerful introduction to the writing of Angélica Gorodischer, a novel which will enthrall readers already familiar with the worlds of Le Guin.
Books like this are incredibly hard to review. I normally like to write a synopsis in my reviews and there’s not really a way for me to do that. Although billed as a novel, Kalpa Imperial is better read as a collection of semi-related short stories. These are unlike any other collection of short stories I’ve read before though. These stories are a beautiful collection of oral folk-tales about the imaginary exploits and history of an empire that never existed. They weave together the rise and fall, exploits and disasters of the common people, mad kings, merchants, concubines, the bustling cities of the North and the small jungle towns of the South.
These are not straight-forward tales though and don’t follow traditional written narrative that we’re familiar with. Told from the perspective of numerous, unnamed storytellers, Kalpa Imperial gives you only glimpses of the Empire. Gorodischer’s stories build back upon themselves, but also sidestep large sections of history, leaving readers with unanswered questions. But those are ultimately answered, or perhaps not answered, in another story or one that may not be told here.
All in all, Kalpa Imperial is an incredible, innovative collection of stories. It’s not something I thought that I would have fallen in love with when first described to me. But Gorodischer’s tone and use of language has been beautifully translated by Le Guin, maintaining the meandering sense of a folktale written passed down for generations. My only problem with the book is how difficult it is to translate an oral tale down onto paper. It took me a little while to get a grip on Gorodischer’s writing style, and a little while longer to get into the world. The first page of the book is almost entirely a run on sentence, something that works fine when speaking but that writers and readers are trained to avoid at all cost. Once I got used to the flow of the words and reminded myself to slow down the stories became much easier to read. I’m not sure there’s an audiobook version for Kalpa Imperial since its published by an indie publisher but would be very interested in listening to one if there was. For this is the type of collection to read aloud, either to yourself or others.