The Greatest Empire That (maybe) Never Was a Novel

by Sören Heim

Sören has dug up another gem of fantastic literature. Kalpa Imperial - The Greatest Empire That Never Was by Argentinian author Angélica Gorodischer is an ambitious piece. But what exactly is it?
Between Christmas an New Years, people have time to read. Isn’t it a great luck then, that I just discovered another fine piece of fantastic fiction, and in my Latin American history of literature, of all places? OK, Kalpa Imperial - The Greatest Empire That Never Was by Angélica Gorodischer is described there as "science fiction", which lets me doubt a little the quality of what appears otherwise to be a proper work of history. Whether the term "novel" is appropriate is also open for discussion. But Kalpa Imperial is definitely worth a look, especially since Ursula K. Le Guin has provided the English translation.

Short Story Collection or Novel?

Kalpa Imperial looks like a collection of short stories that all take place within the ambiguous boundaries of an empire unnamed. They're loosely held together by the narrative device of a "storyteller" who tells the people in the streets and squares of the capital about the past days of the empire. Accordingly, the entire text is full of features of orality - like the narrator answering (implicit) questions of the listeners.

The individual stories vary very much in style. The prelude, for example, is an eloquent parable about the beginnings or re-beginnings of the empire. There is a village close to a site of ancient ruins. People live from hand to mouth there, until a courageous young boy starts digging up "magical objects" from the ruins (maybe: advanced technologies from a former civilization? There you'd have your science-fiction-element. But it remains the only one).

He settles down in the biggest ruin at last and makes himself ruler over the others. The empire is born. This short passage is narrated with an exuberant flow of endless sentences, reminiscent of Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch. In the Spanish original it breathes a grandiose rhythm and melodiousity. Some of the other stories are similar in nature, chronicles rich in imagery rather than stand-alone stories. Here and there, the storyteller also comes up with fictitious eyewitness reports on the vices and virtues of the subsequent rulers.

Dancing and the South

Other stories are structured in such a way that they can be enjoyed without the book's larger context. Particularly noteworthy is the short story of the curiosity dealer Drondlann, who after various mythical creatures, six-legged dragons and chimeras finally acquires a physically mute boy who can dance. This seems unheard of within the borders of the northern empire, where even the word "dancing" is thought to be an invention of the boys former owner by most. By means of his dancer, Drondlann intrigues against one of the capital's grands and finally takes over his social position.

In the south of the empire, on the other hand, dance seems to be a ritual that structures the entire society. We learn this in the story "Down There in the South", when a murderer flees from the north to the south and is forced into the role of a prophet and liberator. The south is half and half a colony of the north, but does not recognize the empire and seems to be subjugated more in the collective imagination of the north than in reality. Through all the stories of Kalpa Imperial, the south remains mostly a terra incognita.

So, is it a novel, then?

But can Kalpa Imperial be justifiably called a novel? Or is it primarily a collection of short stories based on a common universe? At first glance, the latter is quite convincing. The times and often the places where the stories take form differ greatly, it is difficult to make out more than rudimentary connections. There are some weaker stories, which could easily make the reader wonder: Why don't I jump to the next text? But the more one reads, the more one realizes how the world of Kalpa Imperial becomes one.

There are a lot of consistencies throughout the history of the empire. The almost magical function of dance. The relationship to the south. The recurring question of the possibility of just rule. The preoccupation of most stories with the subject of the transience of all things human; and, last but not least, the subject of the status of women in society – be it as oppressed people in a rather patriarchal society, be it as smart climbers, or even as rulers ("Portrait of the Emperor" - who is an Empress).

In fact, by means of her narrative style, fragmented in space and time, Gorodischer succeeds to present her fictional empire in a much more believable way than a lot of fantasy novels relying on classical world-building. Particularly the more detailed stories are presented, as if the reader himself lived in the nameless empire. Localities, spiritual concepts and people are mentioned in passing, just as in a novel about the Berlin of the twenties, for example, the name Stresemann would be mentioned without first explaining in a lexicon-like manner who exactly he was. The subject may or may not be brought up again then in another story. The reader fills the gigantic gaps that Kalpa Imperial leaves. The world seems to grow, to live, to breathe and to disintegrate under the reader's curious glances. There are no neatly drawn maps of this empire, and there won't ever be any. No elaborated chronicles will ever be found on Wikipedia. This is precisely what makes the Empire believable. And in order to partake in this reading experience one should refrain from cherry-picking among the individual stories. So yes, Kalpa Imperial can be regarded as a self-contained novel, after all.

Influences, Differences

Gorodischer's work has sometimes been compared with the work of Borges, or Italo Calvino's The Invisible Cities. However, this should not be exaggerated. Where Calvino's cities are first and foremost exercises in building literary castles in the air, Gorodischer puts her emphasis on narrative. And where Borges emphasizes the mysterious in every line, sometimes to excess, with Kalpa Imperial the mystery rather lies in whether there is really anything encoded "behind" the stories. It is possible that a parabolic reading makes sense: the suspicion is fueled above all by the story of creation, which is presented as a story within the story in "The Old Incense Road". Here, the leader of the caravan blends Greek epic, Hollywood movies and Hollywood gossip, as well as European history into a wonderfully absurd myth of the times before the foundation of the first empire. Is it possible to trace the historically later stories to such "modern myths", too? I have not found any clues, but I would not rule it out.

I can only encourage readers to investigate for themselves. Kalpa Imperial is certainly not an easy read. It is sometimes very demanding, language-wise, and some of the stories fall short compared to the rest. But it is also definitely one of the better books I have encountered in my ever lasting quest for exceptional fantastic literature.

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