The OF Blog: Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar

Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer's fiction has run the gamut from relatively straightforward science fiction (1973's Las jubeas en florThe Jubeas in Bloom – albeit with some commentary on gender roles and expectations in some of this collection's stories) to ethereal fantasy (1983's Kalpa Imperial) to more recent crime novels published in the last decade in Argentina.  Yet until this January, only Kalpa Imperial and one of the stories from Las jubeas en flor were available in English translation.  For those readers who are not as familiar with the shifts and turns in Gorodischer's writing, the recent translation of her 1979 mosaic novel, Trafalgar (excellently translated by Amalia Gladhart), will likely appear to be widely divergent from Kalpa Imperial (at least in terms of the subject matter), yet there are certain narrative traits in common that those who enjoyed Kalpa Imperial likely will find Trafalgar to their liking.

Trafalgar is a series of short stories, some of them almost surreal in structure and content, revolving around the experiences of a Rosario businessman, the eponymous Trafalgar Medrano.  Gorodischer never makes it clear as to whether or not Trafalgar is a BS artist; raconteurs inhabit their stories regardless of their veracity, after all.  Yet it is in the interplay between the narrator and Trafalgar in which the disparate stories gain an unity that makes the mosaic novel stronger than its individual stories.  Below is a quote taken from the first story, "By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon," in which Trafalgar's character is established:

And he went back to his black coffee and unfiltered cigarette.  Trafalgar won't be hurried.  If you meet him sometime, at the Burgundy or the Jockey Club or anywhere else, and he starts to tell you what happened to him on one of his trips, by God and the whole heavenly host, don't rush him; you'll see he has to stretch things out in his own lazy and ironic fashion.  So I ordered another sherry and a few savories and Marcos came over and made some remark about the weather and Trafalgar concluded that changes of weather are like kids, if you give them the time of day, it's all over.  Marcos agreed and went back to the bar.

"It was on Veroboar," he went on.  "It was the second time I'd gone there, but the first time I don't count because I was there just in passing and I didn't even have time to get out.  It's on the edge of the galaxy."

I have never known if it is true or not that Trafalgar travels to the stars but I have no reason not to believe him.  Stranger things happen.  What I do know is that he is fabulously rich.  And that it doesn't seem to bother him.

"I have been selling reading material in the Seskundrea system, seven clean, shiny little worlds on which visual reading is a luxury.  A luxury I introduced, by the way.  Texts were listened to or read by touch there.  The rabble still does that, but I have sold books and magazines to everyone who thinks they're somebody.  I had to land on Veroboar, which isn't very far away, to have a single induction screen checked, and I took the opportunity to sell the surplus."  He lit another cigarette.  "They were comic books.  Don't make that face – if it hadn't been for the comic books, I wouldn't have had to shave my mustache." (pp. 2-3)

Trafalgar's diffidence permeates most of the stories.  Regardless of whether the transactions of which he is a part are mundane or fantastical, his slightly self-contented yet understated delivery of these tales provide an interesting contrast that makes the reader curious not just about what he is describing, but what he is not.  Although the narrative form and content differ significantly in many ways, a comparison can be made to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities in how the banter and interplay between the narrator and storyteller serve to create a narrative dissonance that makes both the "in story" and frame story elements a joy to read.

There are, of course, some elements that might baffle younger readers.  The smoking, the depiction of gender roles, these are a bit out-of-fashion thirty-four years after the book's initial publication in Argentina.  While much of this can also be chalked up to cultural differences (one could say that Trafalgar merely tiene creído, but that might be more true of a porteño than anywhere else in Argentina), it does bear noting that at times Gorodischer seems to be deconstructing the characteristics of a Trafalgar to make a point regarding gender roles, similar to what she did in her 1973 story, "The Violet's Embryos," regarding masculinity and the natures of desire. 

Leaving aside these potential issue for some readers, Trafalgar is largely a triumph of storytelling, as Trafalgar (and the female narrator who interacts with him and teases these stories out of him) is beneath his quirky behavioral tics a storyteller who melds plausible and implausible elements together to create stories that are among the best SFnal stories of the past half-century.  Although not baldly stated as such, each story links into the other, often through an aside that leads into a story of its own.  These semi-nested stories, which spring organically from each other, rarely ever feel too "artificial" or contrived; they "flow" naturally from one into another, leaving the reader eager to discover what happens next in Trafalgar's adventures.  Sometimes, all a reader wants is a well-told story that feels "inhabited," and Trafalgar certainly provides that in spades.  It may not be the perfectly-told series of tales, but it certainly is nearly flawless and even most of its few, minor flaws end up adding to, rather than detracting from, the overall narrative.  Highly recommended.

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