The author of more than twenty works of science fiction—both story collections and novels—Angélica Gorodischer was first introduced to English readers in 2003 with Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, a patchwork novel that uses a variety of writing styles—fairy tales, oral histories, and political commentaries, among others—to depict the rise and fall of a nameless empire. Although Trafalgar works in the opposite direction—this book is a collection of intertwined stories wherein Trafalgar, merchant to all parts of the universe, tells stories about a cornucopia of strange worlds that he visits in his travels—the same literary touchstones are there: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick. And although Trafalgar fails to surpass the best works of its literary forebearers, it is a really charming book that highlights Gorodischer’s incredible world-building abilities.
Each chapter takes the form of someone (usually the narrator) listening to one of Trafalgar’s wild tales about some unique world or other while he pounds gallons of coffee and digresses all over the place. Like something dreamt up by Kilgore Trout, these worlds often have strange societal arrangements—like in “By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon,” which describes a civilization ruled by 1,000 women who retain their power in part by having sex only once a year, via a virtual reality creating machine—that illuminate something interesting about human nature. For example, here’s a bit from “Mr. Chaos,” a story about a madman Trafalgar meets on one of his journeys:
“Aleiçarga. Almost the complete opposite: little sea and lots of green. Two itty-bitty seas at the poles and another larger one close to the equator. It rains a lot, the rest is fertile ground, and the cities are disgusting.”
“Big, dirty, with smoke and drugs and loudspeakers.”
“Not so fast. Small cities because they, and they’re not the only ones, seem to have figured out what we are just learning; very clean, without smoke, don’t even think about drugs, and a few loudspeakers but they’re not bothersome.”
“Then they’re quite nice. I don’t know why you say they’re disgusting.”
“They are too well organized.”
“So far as I know, that is not a defect.”
“You, being Madam Organization; but when a whole city and all of the cities and everything is like an enormous and efficient company presided over by a narrow gauge logic where the effects always follow the causes and the causes march along single file and the dodo birds don’t worry about anything nor are they surprised by anything and they slither along beside you faintly pleased, I—like any normal person—feel a great desire to kill someone or commit suicide.”
Although these stories do, in a way, build on one another and are all tied together at the very end, the real pleasure of this book is in mulling over the philosophical and social underpinnings of the various worlds Gorodischer/Trafalgar describe. They’re like little gems that are fun to think about, and, for the most part, are explained in an entertaining fashion given Trafalgar’s roundabout way of telling his stories, and the sort of interplay with his various interlocutors.
That said, this set-up—a collection of stories told exclusively through dialogues—presents a lot of translation challenges, some of which Amalia Gladhart solved admirably, and some of which bog down the text.
The thing is, for a dialogue-driven book to work right, the dialogue has to always sound right. If it’s clunky, awkward, or tonally inconsistent, the whole illusion falls apart and the narrative feels very strained and stilted. This can happen when the writer/translator choose uncommon slang (“you’re going to end up in the slammer“), or have stilted word combinations (“I hope you haven’t contracted an exquisite inclination for fragile youths with smooth skin and green eyes”), or wordplay that doesn’t necessarily carry over from one culture to another (“Fernando had a tic and opened and closed his eyes every five seconds. If he’d been one of the boys at the cafe, they’d have called him Neon Sign, bet on it”). On a more subtle level, the use of contractions—or the decision not to use them at certain points—helps to replicated the cadence and rhythms of speech on the written page.
In terms of the examples above, I think these oddities are a combination of Gorodischer’s desire to create a verbally quirky character, and Gladhart’s attempt to bring that quirkiness into English. Sometimes it works—especially when describing one of the imaginary worlds—other times it falls flat.
I had a much bigger problem with the high number of grammatically questionable, extremely knotty, sentences in this book. Here are a few quick examples:
It was the translation she had dreamt and that, upon waking, she had rushed to record she didn’t know why since she was still convinced it was nothing but a nightmare;
The only problem was that there was a performance only seldom;
Every time Fina goes to Salta to visit their daughter and the grandchildren, and fortunately she goes often enough that he does not fall completely silent, Cirito stop going to the Jockey Club and that is when a few friends of the kind who correctly interpret the signs go to the cold, dry house and play poker in the dining room.
But as I mentioned above, I don’t think you read this book for the prose style—it’s more for the playfulness of the ideas, the self-referential games (Kalpa Imperial is referenced in the final story), and the pleasure of seeing such a robust imagination at work.
It’ll be interesting to see if more of Gorodischer’s books come out in the future. Both Kalpa Imperial and Trafalgar are from the late-70s/early-80s, and I’m personally curious to see how her more recent titles measure up.