Friday, August 28, 2020

KALPA IMPERIAL, Argentinian woman-authored SF in translation (by SFF monadnock Ursula K. Le Guin!) CW for regressive sexuality politics

KALPA IMPERIAL: The Greatest Empire That Never Was
(tr. Ursula K. Le Guin)
Small Beer Press
$8.69 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Emperors, empresses, storytellers, thieves . . . and the Natural History of Ferrets

Kalpa Imperial is the first of Argentinean writer Angélica Gorodischer’s nineteen award-winning books to be translated into English. In eleven chapters, Kalpa Imperial’s multiple storytellers relate the story of a fabled nameless empire which has risen and fallen innumerable times. Fairy tales, oral histories and political commentaries are all woven tapestry-style into Kalpa Imperial: beggars become emperors, democracies become dictatorships, and history becomes legends and stories.

But Kalpa Imperial is much more than a simple political allegory or fable. It is also a celebration of the power of storytelling. Gorodischer and acclaimed writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who has translated Kalpa Imperial, are a well-matched, sly and delightful team of magician-storytellers. Rarely have author and translator been such an effortless pairing. Kalpa Imperial is a powerful introduction to the writing of Angélica Gorodischer, a novel which will enthrall readers already familiar with the worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.

My Review: In my honest opinion, the chapters here are stories. They're mostly self-contained, they have a my own mind, a single storyteller, with a really, really looonnnggg a narrator to link them; but they're not chapters in a novel. These are the Thousand and One Nights of forgotten and uninquired-about empires, none exactly named but the people and the rulers and the inventors all carry their names with the heft and pride of the people you know in your everyday life. They're Egypt and India and Songhai and Qin and Mexica empires, all one immense and eternal entity called the empire and it's the largest that has ever been known.

Are they worth visiting? I have problems with Author Gorodischer's sexuality politics. I'm not surprised by that, but I am less than pleased. I'm unenthusiastic about the misandry; I'm not going to pretend the collection is perfect to try to sell the idea of reading it to you.

I will say that, if I overcame these issues and read the stories with varying degrees of agreement but always with the certainty that I was in the presence of very, very high-level art, I think you should be able to as well. Comme d'habitude, we shall employ the Bryce Method to experience the parts, now that I've briefly characterized the whole.

The Emperor presents the foundation myth of an Imperial dynasty. The storyteller arrives and shows us his (stated explicitly on p14) vocal tics and verbal stylings.
Well, well, I've let my words run away with me, something a storyteller should take care to avoid; but I've known fear, and sometimes I need to reassure myself that there's nothing to fear any more, and the only way I have to do that is by the sound of my own words.
I suspect the truth of this isn't really that obvious to most of us in the privileged West. I suspect the tyrants' victims are the ones who know what fear so powerful that it enforces your silence on you is to be found more in places where the horror is physical, personal in the original sense "of the person or body," not virtual. No one should be bullied or threatened in our increasingly virtual world. But people whose speech can result in disappearance without return....
Well, you'll have to believe me when I tell you that once he'd sat in the seat of power, Bib became a giant. No, my friends, I don't mean that he grew taller or fatter. He was just as he'd been, smaller and shorter than most men of his age, but he thought intensely of himself not as an isolated person but as a part of something that no longer existed and that needed him in order to exist. And that, my friends, that's the kind of thinking that turns us into giants.
The most wonderful observation of a character becoming A Character...the most complete presentation of a misfit's power to create a space to fit themself. The power of simply being yourself is always huge. The confidence to carve the world's resisting substance into a pedestal and clamber up on it is so rare. And that is exactly what this story of Antiquity, of a long-ago rebirth of Empire, and a dynasty no longer ruling, is about. Another and safer way to tell people that their uniqueness is their power in a society only recently out from under tyranny is to set it long, long ago and make it about a genuine hero...who might or might not have existed....

The Two Hands is a polyphony of classes and stations, a mixing of the low and high in the Empire to tell of a man, a usurper, a creature of full manly vigor in contradistinction to his pathetic, weak, incapable usurped; Author Gorodischer has made it her purpose to tell fragments of a story in no special order and by doing so to reveal what the first voice, The Storyteller, knows and sticks to:
The tale of {the usurper's} life and works is banal, sorry, and inconclusive. Have any of you ever gone near the imperial palace? Have you seen the towers, the immeasurable terraces, the black walls, the fountains? No, nor have I, and even now it's very hard to do so. That's why this story belongs to other people. I'm the one they give presents to and butter up to get me to tell about old, forgotten things. But this time, though it probably won't work, I'm going to try—why not?—to say nothing.
And so the chorus begins, the Archivist, the chambermaid, the officer of the guard, the fisherman, all bring angles of the usurper's story that no one else could've seen or known to care about...and then, according to the above-quoted passage, comes our storyteller:
{The usurper} worked day and night, and under his rule good turned to evil with amazing speed. ... He was so busy that he ate and slept in the throne room, where officials brought the problems of the Empire to him and came away with ruinous solutions.
A usurper, an illegitimate ruler, who wrecks whatever he touches? Goodness, that doesn't sound familiar at all, does it. I mean, it couldn't happen IRL could it, so we turn to fiction to explore the idea.
And then the woman who had been the empress died and was buried in the Garden of the Dead, and the Emperor shut himself up in her apartments...where he was alone.
Utterly divorced from the reality of the realm he rules? No ruler could ever possibly enact that as a governing strategy! Seeing ever fewer ministers, finally none at all but communicating with them via notes left and returned, until people forgot what he actually looked like so were reduced to making up fearful tales of his nocturnal prowlings, resulting in a sense of eternal dread.
How vividly Author Gorodischer paints this impossible scenario. And, as all good stories develop, the changeless changes: A visitor, a ragged and dangerous leper, arrives to make the usurper's twenty-year-long reign of misery change, as the Archivist is privileged to tell us:
I know that it would be pleasing and suitable to say that his visitor was a mighty warrior or a great sorcerer, so that history could repeat itself and philosophers could draw conclusions from it. But what would become of the Annals of the Empire if we archivists started spinning fantasies like the storytellers? No. It was a beggar, lean, lousy, filthy, leprous.
Call things by their proper names, people, and don't let anyone at all spin you a tale in place of giving you the facts. Devaluing truth and disparaging fact lead to bad, ugly, dark, rotten places. Don't forget this.

The End of a Dynasty or The Natural History of Ferrets Wow. What a novella. Secrets, lies, dishonorable shenanigans, cruelties so subtle they are only exquisite and not truly terrible, possessing an evil artistry to elevate them.
No, I'm sorry, but I can't tell you the name of the Ninth emperor of the Hehvrontes dynasty, because I don't know it. Nobody does. It's a name that is not remembered. His guilt and treason, so they said, had been so horrible that his name was never to be pronounced again. Moreover, that name was erased from the annals, the laws, the decrees, from history books, official registries, monuments, coins, escutcheons, maps, poems. Poems, because the emperor had written songs and poems ever since he was a boy. Unfortunately, he'd been a good poet...{a}nd to tell you the truth, many of his poems survived despite everything....
To make art, even an art as debased by solipsism as I contend that poetry is, stands in glaring relief to the notion of a traitorous soul, says Author Gorodischer in the arch, snarky, yet eager to educate voice of the storyteller. Yes, that's the source from which this chapter flows to the restive bu receptive ears of the storyteller's audience:
Now even you people, with all the sensitivity of paving-stones, have figured out that {they}...had been drawn toward the young prince by more than mere chance. We may ask ourselves–ask yourselves, because I've done it already and come up with the answer–whether chance rules humankind or or if all our acts are foreseen...{a}nd it's no use asking this curious question of the wise, because some will insist that everything is chance, others will say it plays no part, and maybe all of them are right, since since they all suspect, behind chance or non-chance, the workings of a secret order.
This narrative voice appeals to me a great deal, it soothes my snobbish downward-gazing know-it-all to read the kind of words I've only barely learned to keep shtumm.

Stop laughing. I have so learned. Imperfectly, perhaps, but learned.

The storyteller regales the only barely willing ears of his audience with the growth of the tenth emperor into an adult over the course of a few short weeks. He is seven years old, trapped in a Gormenghastly nightmare of meaningless ritual and loveless display instead of intimacy; the others, rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, teach his blossoming inner man about realities of life and existence, give him a new identity (the ferret of the title), and ultimately unlock the rage he has borne since he was born.
He no longer hated his nameless father, if ever he had hated him as they had told him he he should do, because he loved {his interlocutors}. Every misfortune has its lucky side, say the wise. And I'd add that every good thing has its disadvantages, and the disadvantage of love is precisely that it leaves room for nothing else....
That is, as I assume my readers know, the simple and honest truth. Love simply is, and it is vaster than anything a mere human can conceptualize. Hard enough to express it, to encompass it , after learning what it is; words are so small, thoughts are so basic, the existence of a state/sensation/need like love can't be stuffed down into them, not even them all. We must try, though, or be strangled on their immensity. After all, as the storyteller tells us, "...the wise say that words, being daughters of the flesh, spoil if they're kept locked up.

Siege, Battle, and Victory of Selimmagud is distasteful, homophobic, and frankly indicative of qualities of mind that I saw in the relentless heterosexual binaries of Le Guin's famous The Left Hand of Darkness and the not-very-subtle homophobia of The Dispossessed (which so offended me that I actually erased it from my experience of the book until reminded of it in a recent guided re-read of the book). The uniformly victorious general of the Seventh Imperial Army of Assault is the "hermaphrodite" (or intersex, as we say these days) child of a lesbian Duchess and a gay Marshal. Because of course the Duchess of COLDWINTER would give birth to such a creature, as the General is portrayed as, in his slinky blond slenderness. Things go downhill from there. It taints my pleasure in this otherwise deeply pleasurable read.

Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities is as detailed, as lumbered with names as the begats in the Bible. Significantly more fun, however, and quite, in the end, a wry tale of life's innumerable Zen jokes. The storyteller tells us about the nature of History, Kleio not what's in old newspapers, the nature of the story of the past not the time gone by. So the storyteller sets us up in this universe, the History of the empire's multi-capital, as follows:
All these works of imaginative inventions unfortunately got into chronicles, which were made into books which everybody respected and believed, principally because they were thick, hard to hold, tedious, and old. And they got into legends, those tales that everybody says they don't believe in because they can't take them seriously, and that everybody believes in precisely because they can't take them seriously.
Well, yes. Too much taking seriously of things that can't bear the weight of seriousness leads to deep fractures in the foundations of society. I'm struggling to come up with a real-world example of this. /sarcasm

The storyteller is a wonderful and arch presence throughout the story.
When an ancient, poverty-stricken woman called {the failed usurper} to come in and share her midday meal, he wouldn't sit at the table, but ate humbly crouching in the doorway. That was when he discovered that he liked this job, not as much as the job of emperor, maybe, but it was all he had. That same evening he preached for the first time.
And thus, my ducks, the beginning of the end for stable secular society. Someone who understands politics gets the religious burr under their saddle and it's all over and no mistake.

But the ends of politics and religion, whether meshing or clashing, are as nothing compared to humankind's impulse to slaughter, destroy, wreck, wreak havoc upon, their fellow humans:
The Battle of the North lasted exactly fifty hours. The men attacked, broke, scattered, retreated, had a bite to eat, and returned to the attack. Telling such things one is sickened by what men are. They were not men; nor were they wolves, nor hyenas, nor vultures, nor eagles. They were blind organisms, mindless, nerveless, without feeling or thought, with only the power to wound, and blood to shed.
I trust you note in the above passage the explicit and ongoing (quite a lengthy paragraph continues on from this excerpt; I don't want to type it) gendering of violence. Both Author Gorodischer and Translator Le Guin subscribe to masculine culpability tropes in social illness. I don't think that's the whole story, but the evidence of male violent behavior is pretty damned obvious to anyone with eyes. And these eyes, the women and the mother who wrote and translated the story, are unsparing.

I don't blame them a bit.

Portrait of the Empress tells a lovely, fantasy-fulfilling tale of Virtue Rewarded. The Storyteller, bless him, revels in knowing secrets and telling tales; protest though he might about the Role of the Taleteller in spreading the word of the best, the worst, the rest of us, he is a creature of the Power that controls access to the world's powerful.
Power, bah! {the Great Empress would} say, looking disillusioned. Only if you forget about power can you govern well, she'd say. And it was true. She forgot about the power she had, which was immense, and so power, ignored and disdained, courted her, trotted after her...But she despised it utterly and made it wait like a beggar at the palace gates. Anybody could approach her, anybody could come into the palace and talk to her, for not depending on power she had no fear, and dispensed with protocol and ceremony. She was the first person on the imperial throne for centuries and centuries who kept no bodyguards, the first to go down in the streets unprotected...carried in a sedan chair like any rich woman, or on foot like any workman's or tradesman's wife. So it was that I knew her.
For yes, lads and lasses, the storyteller in his humbleness caught the august attention of the Great Empress! She, all uneducated, knew that she needed to know what a storyteller whose words wove magic from the lives of dead and gone people and places now crumbled to dust. Why on Earth, you ask (I did), should this be? How can someone attain an office people literally kill to occupy without knowing one blessèd thing about its history and the consequences of its misuses?! /sarcasm

In the Great Empress's case, by being canny, astute, flexible enough to speak truth to Power without belaboring the point being made. By being honest, within reason, by telling someone whose life differed from her own by the most astonishing and appalling degree the home truths that all of us need to know. By being, at all times and in all ways, clear-sighted and pragmatic.

I assume, then, you won't be surprised to know that the Great Empress was no believer in majgickq:
Magic can't be trusted, I assure you; what's useful is quickness and certainty in making up one's mind. And that's not magic even if it looks like it, because you can only do it when you've learned to think your own thoughts. In those few minutes I had realized that the Emperor was dying, that some of the people around him were fakes and the rest incompetents, and that here, at the throne, I could find a use for the energy I wasted...Once I knew that and knew I knew it and discussed it with myself and accepted it, when the emperor asked how I'd come by the {healing stone}, I told him the truth and added, truthfully, that he and I alone knew it.
That is the shortest road to power for the powerless: Never toady, never lie, never make more of something than it can bear. It was in telling the dying emperor these truths that the Great Empress put her feet onto the path to her world's highest and most august office, one she has occupied and executed with admirable restraint and honor.

Author Gorodischer posits a solution to the empire's ills that very much annoys me, one that I first encountered when I read Richard Sennett's urbanization-without-policing magnum opus The Uses of Disorder. Fifty years ago, he wrote this paean to the notion of urban libertarianism. The author here espouses a semi-urban libertarianism that makes me just as sick to my stomach. Gay people will most likely know why: The idea of a community setting its standards for itself, and enforcing them inside itself, is a recipe for persecution of the Other, the queer and different-colored and just different. Womyn-only spaces are safe! Unless you're some womon's tweenaged son. Black-only communities are safe! Unless you're trans. etc etc etc ad nauseam ad infinitum

There will never, utopian anarchists, be a day when it isn't someone's turn in the barrel.

And the Streets Empty is also unpleasant, containing revenge porn for women who are abused by men. Ableist, denigrates sex workers as so many of these stories do.

The Pool tells us of the many ways we lie to ourselves, for the best and worst of reasons, and become trapped in the illusions we create to hide our lies and their consequences from ruining our happiness. A doctor who practices his healing arts on Whiterose Street fails to accept the lies of the world, and so effects healing on his patients:
"We keep adding needless things, false things to ourselves, till we can't see ourselves and forget what our true shape is. And if we've forgotten what shape we are, how can we find the right place to be? And who dares pull away the falsities that are stuck to his eyelids, his fingernails, his heels? So then something goes wrong in the house and in the world, and we get sick. ... What's dangerous isn't having them, said the doctor, what's serious is loving them."
After great storms and mighty political upheavals and misguided attempts to be excluded from the universal laws of sadness and regret, the doctor's healing of a bad man, a man who has done bad things, a man whose criminal acts offend the idea of self he carries within himself, leads to this doctor's acquisition of an apprentice who wants to know the names of far-away flowers he cannot see. Other changes, less important ones, take place offstage...and the history books get rewritten again because of them.


Basic Weapons in which the storyteller tells us of a man, one without legs but with a serviceable set of wheels, who conceives of an envious passion: He wishes to wheedle his way into a rich man's home. He does this by committing, repeatedly, the worst sin a being can commit: To use the existence of another for one's own profit.
Then the boy did what the salesman had described: he danced. He moved first without changing place, both feet as if fixed to the ground. He waved his arms, lifted them held them out; he swayed, and he made circles with his body, twisting his waist, and with his head, that seemed to turn feel\y at the end of his long neck. Then he leapt, without ceasing to sawy the rest of his body. He spun on one foot, on the other, bowed down, swept the ground with his hands, straightened up, ran two steps to one side, three to the other, his arms held high, his head fallen back. ... And the dealer (in curiosities like the dancer)? He had felt the world begin to spin quicker than it had ever done, more dizzily than when it was an incandescent lump of rock under the attentive eye of God.
The salesman made his sale; the dealer had a deal that leads him into the halls of the most powerful, wealthiest old man in the district. The old man is, as who would not be in a world that has never known dance, by the blond boy he must rent by the performance from the dealer. And, as is the way of nature, the storyteller reminds us that there is no fool like an old, dying fool.

Unless it's a hate-addicted legless bastard with a beautiful slave.

"Down There in the South" they say, "Not all is said; it hasn't all been said." And they are right, it hasn't and, I suspect, it can't all be said or there would be no more empire or villages or lakes bleeding rivers.
Yes, and it's always been that way, always. There've been emperors who dreamed of subjugating the South. There've been emperors who tried it, and some thought they'd done it. But with what? I ask, with what? With power, weapons, armies, fire, terror? Useless, all that, completely useless: all power can do is silence people, keep them from singing, arguing, dancing, talking, brawling, making speeches, and composing music. That's all. That's a lot, you may say, but I tell you it's not enough. For what power can keep the earth from speaking to people? What weapons can keep water from running and stones from rolling? What artillery can keep a storm from crouching on the horizon, ready to burst?
A bad man, venal and corrupt and from the nobility, does a bad thing and runs away. So far, so "uh huh and your point is..." It is necessary for his fat, lazy, criminal self to move fast, think faster, and hide. None of these come exactly naturally from being a pampered noble cheat. But dig we must when a spade is beside us and a gun behind. Our vile man runs, perish forbid for a scion of the empire to do, but runs of necessity to the South.
He soon noticed that in the South the air was not that inert space he had known in parks, the suffocating perfumed mantle of bedrooms, the weary, stale atmosphere of casinos. The air he breathed here was as thick and fertile as the earth and water. The earth sustained everything and under it was the water; but the water rose up too and covered the earth, and the air that was above them both extended down into the earth enriched by the water, silent or noisy, and a white-gold dust floated and drifted around still things and among the insects with transparent wings and the greedy birds darting among fleshy leaves. And this joyous commotion went on all the time, everywhere, and he had to take part in it.
This is a place that will, that must, change a man walking through it into a being joining with it; or else he will die. (I'm in the die camp. I hate heat.) On his way through the South, he learns that men are dancers and women singers in this world, and that there exist thirty-seven dances. This, to his Northern self, is just flat freaky.

But there he goes, our not-the-worst-of-men, murdering cheating nobleman slowly with each step abrading away the false and brummagem from himself. He meets people, he learns their ways of doing and being in the world; he attacks no one, cheats nothing, arrives and leaves because coming necessitates going. He returns because parting means reunion. He is, simply put, never ever still but always being his way into becoming.

And what does our storyteller have to tell us about people who be their way into becoming? Why, that they become what they truly are and experience their life from the place they've readied themselves to occupy.
"They have fled," {the general} repeated. "In terror," he added with a complacent smile.

The emperor smiled too. I believe it was the last smile of his life.
I hope he enjoyed it.

The Old Incense Road added little to the gestalt. The Cat, a brat, does bratty stuff while an old man, Z'Someone, growls and grumbles and everyone does a few different things and honestly, I have no idea how this one is different from any fantasy story in the world except it lacks the storyteller's arch, dry wit. Not the story I'd've gone out on; calling this a novel doesn't make it one and this would be a crap ending to a novel anyway, and as a collection, that wasn't a good outro.

Because this book is ***PERFECT*** for book clubs, there exists a handy-dandy reader's guide to spark discussions that should, most likely will, lead to much vigorous side-taking. Bracing, exciting discussions ahead!

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