August 2005

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was
A book by Angelica Gorodischer
Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin
iBooks (ISBN 1416504117) 246 pages

Angelica Gorodischer was born in 1929 and lived most of her life in Argentina. She comes from a family of writing tradition, and in Kalpa Imperial she showcases her own writing chops with clarity and scope. The book is a collection of various folklores presented through a narrator who sits on street corners and tells stories for a living. The character of the storyteller is more than a device, however; Gorodischer gives him wonderful humor and even takes multiple jabs at the readers, saying on more than one occasion that he wouldn't have a job telling stories if the common people possessed greater intellect and reasoning power. The various stories span the course of hundreds, maybe thousands of years, each taking place in a different period of some mythical Empire of Gorodischer's creation. By the book's end, I was left with a broad picture of how societies change and how Empires transform.

*

Portrait of the Emperor is the first story in the book, and one of my favorites. It takes place in a time when the Empire was all but nonexistent. The story follows the life of a young, ambitious boy named Bib who renovates the ruins of an Imperial Palace. Over the course of his life, he reestablishes the Empire and sits on the golden throne. This story also introduces a theme in Imperial Kalpa: common people accomplishing great tasks that profoundly influence history.

*

The End of a Dynasty or the Natural History of Ferrets is also one of the book's stronger offerings. It is a coming of age story of one of the Empire's greatest rulers. In it, a young prince befriends two palace workers (though it may be more appropriate to say they befriend him) and learns about life outside his courtly routine. He also learns the truth about his slain father and his mother, who sits on the throne until he, nicknamed the Ferret, becomes old enough to reign. The prince learns a terrible truth through his friendship with the workers, and that truth ushers him into adulthood. The story makes a great comment on how pain and suffering can make a ruler strong and wise.

*

Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities is more like a historical record than a short story. The narrator follows a particular town throughout its history and shows how a place changes and grows with different leaders and social climes. The city itself is the protagonist of this tale, and we watch it take on a variety of moods and behaviors. Not the most interesting story in this collection, but unique and thoughtful.

*

Other tales include: Portrait of the Empress, in which the narrator truly introduces himself. We learn how the Empress took him into the palace and asked his help in learning the history of the Empire. Gorodischer seems to be tipping her hat at her own profession, showing the importance of storytellers in understanding history and maintaining a peaceful society. The Pool depicts a kind doctor who struggles with the moral question if murder is ever permissible. "Down in the South" then shows the consequences of murder as we follow a young man who loses everything in a life on the run. This story has the most fantasy elements of all the tales in this collection. It features a long journey, a strange land with mystical powers, and the promise of prophecy. The Old Incense Road finishes the book with a new take on the importance of stories. It even offers an exciting action sequence and shows yet another transition of power in the great Empire.

*

Angelica Gorodischer has written a unique collection of stories that demonstrate how societies evolve over time. I can see why Ursula K. Le Guin was interested in this work, knowing how important anthropology and sociology have been in her own books. Kalpa Imperial is not always the most engrossing collection, and only at times can it be described as exciting, but it is refreshingly different, heartfelt, and, unlike so many fiction books being published today, it has something to say.