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Saturday, December 31, 2011

It was pure coincidence that I read Kalpa Imperial, written by Angélica Gorodischer and translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, after 1491, but it turned out to be suitable in an odd way.

Kapla Imperial is a set of stories about "The Greatest Empire that Never Was." It hooked me from the opening of the first story:

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 lives—now anybody 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 Ellydróvides.

If you hate that, then don't read the book; all the sentences aren't like that, but I think you need to be able to roll with the language and something of a, hmmm, non-directed approach to storytelling. The stories aren't in chronological order—I think; I'm not sure because it is not, as far as I can tell, possible to put them all in chronological order. There's no continuing characters, there's no timeline or family trees, there's no obvious arc over the entire book. What there is, are vivid and remarkable short stories about people and cities and ways of living.

When I finished Kalpa Imperial, I almost didn't want to think of it analytically, because it felt so much its own thing. But I re-read because I was trying to figure out why the last section alone is not told by a storyteller [*], and then I found myself considering the little context I had and feeling the lack of more. Gorodischer is Argentinian, and—here's where 1491 comes in for me—that gives me a sense that the lengthy and often forgotten history of the Empire, and the Empire's uneasy relationship with the South, resonate with Gorodischer's cultural context. But, particularly with regard to the story about the South, I wished I knew more about Argentinian history and culture, because I think it would inform my reaction and understanding. (See also this discussion in comments to Jo Walton's review).

[*] I didn't come up with any ideas. Nor was I able to figure out why the stories told in this section were adaptations of the Trojan War in which, among other things, the Achaeans and the Trojans are houses called saloon and the charge of the light brigade. It is extremely weird and massively distracting and, thankfully, not at all typical of the book.

There are two excerpts linked at the publisher's webpage for the book, which will almost certainly be more useful to you than this booklog entry in telling you whether you want to read this book.

Finally, I'm putting this under "sf and fantasy" on the Swordspoint principle.


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