[Kalpa Imperial: the Greatest Empire that Never Was, by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. ibooks, Inc., 2005, ISBN: 1-4165-0411-7.]
Many of you may already be familiar with Kalpa Imperial; after all, the original edition from Small Beer Press came out in 2003 and received a good deal of critical acclaim. However, the book has only just arrived as a mass-market hardcover intended for wide distribution (in February 2005), and it’s entirely possible that people who unavoidably missed the Small Beer edition may now find themselves running across the new version at their local bookstores. Those of you who have Small Beer copies should keep them, since, while the new printing is perfectly respectable, it is by no means as beautifully designed as the original, and the new cover art can only be described as irrelevant. However, those of you wondering whether to venture towards the book at all, and whether it’s worth the hefty hardcover prices—in a word, yes. Pick it up, and pick it up now. It is a delight.
In its original Spanish, Kalpa Imperial was published as two volumes, which are printed together in this edition. This doesn’t really affect the continuity because the book is a set of interlinked oral histories and traveler’s tales and its sections could have been presented in any order without damaging their impact. The book is primarily unified by its setting, the “empire” of the subtitle, an empire of almost infinite expanse in both time and space. The empire has risen and fallen a thousand times, and had innumerable emperors and empresses occupying its Golden Throne. Gorodischer gives us only a small portion of the historiography, and by no means enough details to fill in the gaps, but the past of the empire is continually referred to in each story’s present, which gives the sense that one is being shown small pieces of a continuous and interlinked tapestry and offers one of the book’s great pleasures.
This tapestry, this sense of the empire as a thing in itself, helps set off the individual stories as being both the stories of individuals and as being the stories of types of people, since the various characters are three-dimensional in and of themselves (in the best segments) and are also the types of high fantasy: the lost heir, the mad Emperor, the greedy merchant, the marketplace storyteller. Each of these types is as much a part of the history of the empire as its wars and its battles and its cities.
At their very best, then, the stories of Kalpa Imperial have power and beauty and a kind of inevitability, so that their plots unfold in ways that should be surprising but aren’t, or that are very surprising and shouldn’t be.
A beautiful example of this is the segment entitled “The End of a Dynasty, or the Natural History of Ferrets,” in which the young prince, Livna’lams, is so hemmed in by ritual and law and custom that he has never had any time for himself. He is also trapped by his mother’s insistence on a dramatic and public atonement for the supposed treason of his father, the emperor, and he is a quiet and sorrowful boy until he meets a couple of simple manual laborers in the gardens. It’s obvious that they will teach him how to laugh and how to think and how to rule, how to gain his self-respect and how to deal with his mother, but it’s all done so deftly and gracefully that it becomes new and unfamiliar even as it’s obvious. Here, Livna’lams has just met his future friends, and been bemused by the fact that they are aware of his identity:
“What does a bricklayer know about what a prince wears?” the boy asked.
“Listen, tadpole,” said Renka. “Listen up, because I don’t care if you’re a prince. We aren’t bricklayers. We’re adventurers, and therefore philosophers, and therefore although we aren’t going to beat you up, being fond of having our heads attached at the neck, neither are we going to play monkey tricks and bob up and down in reverence to your majesty.”
At this the boy did something really wonderful, really magnificent. He uncrossed his arms, threw his head back, and laughed with all his heart.
“We aren’t clowns, either,” said Renka, deeply insulted.
But the other man, who was called Loo’Loö, which isn’t a name or if it’s a name it’s a very unusual one, threw his head back too and holding his sides he laughed right along with the prince. Big Renka looked at them, very serious, and scratched his head, and when Livna’lams and Loo’Loö quit laughing and wiped their eyes, he said, “If you want my opinion, you’re both crazy. I’m not surprised. Philosophers and princes have a definite tendency to go crazy. Though I never heard of a tadpole with enough sense to go crazy.”
Livna’lams does escape the rituals of his life and the lies of his mother, but he isn’t a model king in some ways; he doesn’t escape his childhood undamaged, and he is known to history as a mad but benevolent emperor. There are hints that Loo’Loö might be his father, previously banished, but there is no dramatic revelation. The empress, despite her treachery and nastiness, is not brought to any kind of public justice, and dies eventually of an illness. In short, the arc of the story is towards understanding and growth, rather than large-scale action. In an intrinsically dramatic situation, full of mentions of history’s judgment and the legends of later years, the focus is on the small, quiet, everyday acts that people perform to go about their lives, and these acts bring about the kind of great, sweeping changes that wars and treasons can cause in epics.
All of the best stories contain this kind of focus, and so never lose the ability to surprise even when the greater shape is clear. The empress of “Portrait of the Empress,” for example, takes the throne because she is tired of being a housewife. In her own narration:
I felt very uneasy, almost angry: looking after my husband, running the house… embroidering by the window—it wasn’t enough. So I’d undertake to change things, refurnish a room… have a pergola built or a pool put in, and supervise the work myself.… I tried to think my own thoughts about my restlessness and my bursts of activity, and saw that I had too much energy and needed something to spend it on.
She goes down in the annals of the empire simply as the Great Empress, after a bloodless and subtle transfer of power. In a way, hers is a Cinderella story, but only in its broadest outline. Mostly, it is simply her story.
In the few places where the book fails, or becomes briefly less interesting, it tends to be because the predictability of the greater plot has overwhelmed the individuals involved in it. By about halfway through I was looking for hidden heirs to the throne in every segment, and the one out-and-out flop in the book is the last section, “The Old Incense Road,” because not only is it terribly easy to spot the hidden heir, but I didn’t care about the process of kingmaking once I’d spotted them. This final story has a much greater and more aggravating flaw as well. One of its characters tells stories about the creation of the world and the early myths of the gods of the empire: well and good. It was, however, unnecessary and distracting for all the gods to have names which are peculiar permutations of Hollywood stars, and it was no doubt intentional. After the appearance of Jamesdín I simply skipped those segments to continue the larger story. But others may not find this as annoying as I did.
Overall, Kalpa Imperial is an unusual balancing act, a careful dance between cliché and realism, and it’s almost always a pleasure and a privilege to watch. Partly this is because of Ursula Le Guin’s flowing and vivid translation, of course. The prose does not read as pure Le Guin, but cannot actually be said to read as anything else; it has the feel of a collaboration between Le Guin and another prose stylist, which of course it is. Every so often there are individual phrases and quirks of punctuation which are highly reminiscent of some of Le Guin’s essays, but there is the sense that she is trying to restrain this and use a light touch, which, in the main, succeeds. In the end, the quirks of the prose are subdued to the needs of the stories (except for the unfortunate naming incident mentioned above), but the delicacy and grace of the language is entertaining and enjoyable in itself as well.
I can only hope that the previous critical attention (drawn primarily by Le Guin’s notoriety, but given to a deserving book) and the new mass-market edition eventually lead to translation into English of some of Gorodischer’s other books. I have heard that she has written other stories set in the empire. Perhaps some day its history will evolve into a whole, although, in some ways, I rather hope not. The tapestry is an art form in itself.