Dijo el narrador: – Ahora que soplan buenos vientos, ahora que se han terminado los días de incertidumbre y las noches de terror, ahora que no hay delaciones ni persecuciones ni ejecuciones secretas, ahora que el capricho y la locura han desaparecido del corazón del Imperio, ahora que no vivimos nosotros y nuestros hijos sujetos a la ceguera del poder; ahora que un hombre justo se sienta en el trono de oro y las gentes se asoman tranquilamente a las puertas de sus casas para ver si hace buen tiempo y se dedican a sus asuntos y planean sus vacaciones y los niños van a la escuela y los actores recitan con el corazón puesto en lo que dicen y las muchachas se enamoran y los viejos mueren en sus camas y los poetas cantan y los joyeros pesan el oro detrás de sus vidrieras pequeñas y los jardineros riegan los parques y los jóvenes discuten y los posaderos le echan agua al vino y los maestros enseñan lo que saben y los contadores de cuentos contamos viejas historias y los archivistas archivan y los pesacadores pescan y cada uno de nosotros puede decidir según sus virtudes y sus defectos lo que ha de hacer de su vida, ahora cualquiera puede entrar en el palacio del Emperador, por necesidad o por curiosidad; cualquiera puede vistar esa gran casa que fue durante tantos años velada, prohibida, defendida por las armas, cerrada y oscura como lo fueron las almas de los Emperadores Guerreros de la dinastía de los Ellydróvides. Ahora cualquiera puede caminar por los anchos corredores tapizados, sentarse en los patios a escuchar el agua de las fuentes, acercarse a las cocinas y recibir un buñuelo de manos de un ayundante gordo y sonriente, cortar una flor en los jardines, mirarse en los espejos de las galerías, ver pasar a las camareras que llevan vestos con ropa limpia, tocar con un dedo irreverente la pierna de una estatua de mármol, saludar a los preceptores del príncipe heredero, reírse con las princesas que juegan a la pelota en el prado; y puede también pararse a la puerta de la sala del trono y esperar su turno simplemente, para acercarse al Emperador y decirle, por ejemplo: (pp. 15-16)
The narrator said: "Now that the good winds blow, now that the days of uncertainty and the nights of terror have ended, now that there are no accusations nor persecutions nor secret executions, now that caprice and madness have disappeared from the heart of the Empire, now that we and our children do not live subject to the blindness of power; now that a just man is seated on the gold throne and the people quietly look out from the doors of their homes to see if the weather is nice and they dedicate themselves to their affairs and they plan their vacations and the children go to school and the actors recite from the heart what they are to say and the girls are enamored and the old die in their beds and the poets sing and the jewelers weigh the gold behind their little windows and the gardeners water the parks and the young discuss and the innkeepers add water to wine and the teachers teach what they know and the storytellers tell old stories and the archivists archive and the fishermen fish and each one of us can decide according to their virtues and defects how to live their lives, now anyone can enter the Imperial palace, by necessity or through curiosity; anyone can visit that great house that was for so many years veiled, prohibited, defended by arms, close and dark as were the souls of the Warrior Emperors of the Ellydróvides Dynasty. Now anyone can walk along the wide tapestried corridors, seat themselves on the patios to hear the fountain water, near to the kitchens and receive a doughnut from the hands of a fat and smiling assistant, cut a flower in the gardens, look at yourself in the gallery mirrors, see the maids passing by dressed in clean clothes, touch with an irreverent finger the leg of a marble statue, salute the tutors of the hereditary prince, laugh with the princesses that play ball in the meadow; and also can stand at the door of the throne room and take turns just to approach the Emperor and say, for example:
This first paragraph, all two sentences of it, from Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer's 1983 novel, Kalpa Imperial, contains a lot within it. As the narrator proceeds to narrate the golden age that has dawned upon the Most Vast Empire That Never Existed, there is the sense of a darker past, one in which the false accusations and secret executions did occur, where the emperors were not open and forthright with their subjects but instead shuttered their doors and ruled by the force of arms. Through the course of eleven linked stories, Gorodischer traces the lineages of this empire, which over the course of dynasties rose and fell precipitously, only to re-emerge with a new dynasty or golden era. Kalpa Imperial feels simultaneously like an idealized empire similar to that of Calvino's Kublai Khan in Invisible Cities and a fable of humanity's short-sightedness and capacity for greatness adulterated with petty vices.
There is a rhythm to Gorodischer's prose, as the purposely distant tone of the storytelling narrator provides the sense that what is unfolding has transpired long in the past (and will yet occur). There are few characters, per se, however there are character types that appear frequently over the course of the stories. These characters can be venial or magnanimous, seeking to draw power into themselves or to take it back from a corrupt imperial government that has lost sight of its purpose. The peoples of the mountainous north and the southern jungles exist on the periphery of imperial power; sometimes they invade, other times they are conquered and their peoples chafe under repressive governments (the east and west are not really mentioned).
Kalpa Imperial's deals with power and its use, as well as historical/cultural inheritance. While it is easy to say that the Most Vast Empire That Never Existed is an analogue of sorts to dynastic China, that would be reducing the scope of Gorodischer's thematic ambitions. Instead, one may argue that in presenting such a familiar historical model for the fictional empire, Gorodischer is opening the door for a discussion of power/state relationships that contain more contemporary applications. After all, when the book was first published, the brutal junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983 and who precipitated the disastrous Malvinas/Falkland Islands War with Great Britain was collapsing. With that in mind, the opening paragraph takes on a very different perspective than if it were just simply a fictional parallel to Imperial China. Yet there are warnings that current peace may fade, as story after story notes the decline of the "good" dynasties and the rise of the more militant, power-hungry ones who end up sapping the Empire of its resources and its subjects' good wills.
Gorodischer's writing is outstanding throughout this 256 page book (which originally constituted two volumes; the second was published a year after the first). Although I no longer have the English translation that Ursula Le Guin did a few years ago, I did read it and I seem to recall that she captures the essence of Gorodischer's writing quite well in her translation. This is fitting, considering that at times when first reading the book back in 2003 that I thought of how the "little details" in Gorodischer's writing resembled some of Le Guin's best work: the characteristics of different societies, the power relationships shown through brief interactions, the feeling that it were a historian or a cultural anthropologist who were narrating these tales. Yet despite these similarities, Gorodischer's writing does not feel like a pastiche of Le Guin's best work, nor does it, beyond the surface similarities that Gorodischer herself has noted in the past, resemble those of her primary literary influences, J.R.R. Tolkien and Italo Calvino.
Kalpa Imperial is a mosaic novel whose entirety is stronger than the sum of its parts. While there are very few "weak" stories within the eleven, when viewed as a whole, each story builds upon its predecessors and creates a stronger, more nuanced narrative arc than the eleven stories do by themselves. Having re-read this book about a half-dozen times over the past nine years (twice in English, four times in Spanish), Kalpa Imperial is one of those rare books where a re-read improves the reader's overall impressions. It truly is a modern classic of Latin American literature and by it being perched between realist and speculative spheres of fiction writing, it should appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Very highly recommended.