Although Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer was recently honored with a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement for a substantial body of work spanning five decades, this translation of her 1979 novel-in-stories Trafalgar marks only the second time that one of her major works has been translated into English. Ursula Le Guin's masterful 2003 translation of Gorodischer's tales of "the greatest empire that never was" under the title Kalpa Imperial enchanted many Anglophone readers, and expectations for this second offering should be high: auspiciously, Trafalgar even dates from the same phase of Gorodischer's career, and both works take the form of interlinked story collections that explore a series of marvelous settings. It quickly becomes clear that their similarities largely end there, however, as the intergalactic comedy of Trafalgar differs sharply in tone and substance from the fantastic worldbuilding of Kalpa Imperial. While the latter novel strategically adopts the conventions and cadences of traditional oral narrative, Trafalgar revels in oral narrative of a different kind: "Trafalgar," despite its British-imperial resonances, is not the name of an empire or any place, but a womanizing raconteur with a serious caffeine addiction and an endless supply of interstellar tall tales—all starring himself, naturally. Gorodischer's work tends to draw comparisons with high "literary" fabulists like Borges and Italo Calvino, but these pulpy space fantasy stories, recounted in one clubbish setting after another, can read more like Spider Robinson (although with far fewer puns, at least in the translation, than the typical Callahan yarn). All in all, I found the richly imaginative narratives of adventure in Trafalgar perfectly enjoyable to read, but the unrelenting spirit of whimsy, even archness, running through the collection may also make them too insubstantial, too easily forgettable.
On the other hand, some of the stories that I recall most vividly actually troubled me more than they captivated me, like the opening story, "By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon," which culminates in a bizarre inadvertent rape possible only in science fiction, or the carefree tale of a (literal) second Christopher Columbus, "Of Navigators." In this latter story, Trafalgar explains that he recently stumbled upon "a good substitute for time travel," in that he found himself on a world "almost identical" to Earth in 1492. Looking for a bit of stimulation and a bit of entertainment, the roguish space merchant presents himself at the Spanish court as a traveler from the Orient, and there his path soon crosses with that of an ineffectual version of Columbus. Trafalgar realizes that he has a unique opportunity to write human history differently in this "new world," but he casually elects to join in the great game of colonization, and even accelerates it a bit by using his spaceship to drop off "the Admiral" and the gang in San Salvador. As I read this story, I couldn't help but recall another recent genre-friendly work to refer consistently to Columbus as "the Admiral," Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)—and note the extreme contrast. For Díaz, the legacy of Columbus is a story of five centuries of trauma, and to refer to Columbus as "the Admiral" is to treat him like a dread dark lord, a He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, in order to avoid bringing the attention of the great curse of the New World down on your family. For Trafalgar—and for Gorodischer?—to call Columbus "the Admiral" is simply part of the fun of playing in and with the past. Tellingly, "Of Navigators" concludes with the narrator and Trafalgar bantering about how decisions made in the past make a lasting impression on the future: "[a] decision for five hundred years from now is no joke." Only here, the decision is a joke, or rather, the very idea that the decision is no joke is itself the joke, since the specific decision in question is simply Trafalgar's meal preference (kidneys over liver). Is this really a suitable punch line to the story of Columbus, and the ongoing story of our relationship with it in the present?
I suppose that one of the major difficulties I had when reading—and when sitting down to review—Trafalgar involves questions of irony and self-consciousness: does Gorodischer ever want us to feel guilty about indulging in Trafalgar's Golden Age adventure stories, complete with dazzlingly beautiful heroines for our hero to bed, and occasional insensitivities to the historical costs of the terrestrial colonization and imperialism that such stories so enthusiastically map onto the "virgin" galaxy? Is Gorodischer self-consciously including such tropes in her own fiction in order to critique this kind of narrative, or is she condemning, for example, the way that Trafalgar sees and treats women? I suspect that the answer to these questions can only be something like, "Yes, to some extent, but never nearly enough." Consider the particulars of the framing narrative set in the author's native Rosario, for instance, a frame that becomes more or less intrusive on the individual narratives of Trafalgar's interstellar argosies: although no one can actually confirm that Trafalgar has ever left the planet, none of his friends seem to care, either, as long as he can tell a good story and pay his own way. The friends of the "fabulously wealthy" Trafalgar, Gorodischer included—the author places herself in the roster of his friends given in his "Who's Who" entry—seem to find him a beloved rascal, a man permitted to behave a little badly because deep down he has a good heart and, perhaps more importantly, because he simply provides such excellent entertainment. Gorodischer implies that, as readers, we should feel the same way about the aging brand of narrative he peddles, narrative really being the chief commodity driving his "import-export business": although some of the details may seem problematic, we can forgive those peccadilloes because this kind of story is just so darn fun and fundamentally good-spirited. For my part, I wasn't always convinced.
Indeed, it can be difficult to divine Gorodischer's intentions even in the stories that are less ethically problematic and indeed much stronger pieces of fiction overall—and by "intentions" here I am not referring to her "themes" or her "meaning," but simply how she wishes us to approach her stories, what codes of reading we are supposed to bring to bear on them. Whenever, for instance, Trafalgar's tales flirt with high seriousness, Gorodischer's narrators, if not the author herself, unaccountably undercut the philosophical discursus or mystical revelation with sarcasm or some other deflationary device of humor. For example, the science fictional narrative of "The Best Day of the Year," one of the finest stories in the collection, remains subject to the biting irony of the story's in-universe audience even as it speculates about the simultaneity of time and the existence of "arborescent universes." The beginning of the story chronicles Trafalgar's disorienting experiences on a planet that seems to jump forward and backward in time several centuries every morning: Gorodischer names both Philip K. Dick and Vonnegut in the story, and at first we seem to have what is very much a Dickian slippage of reality on our hands, albeit without nearly as much existential panic. Yet Trafalgar's synthesizing peroration, in which he finally makes some kind of sense of his experiences traveling through these times, receives a terminally flippant response:
"I think that not only do all of us, everywhere, have a syncretic awareness of time, but also that everywhere infinite variants of what has happened and what is going to happen and what is happening coexist, and maybe at some points and at some instants they cross and you think you remember something you have never experienced or that you could have experienced or that you could experience and will not experience, or as in my case with the bowl, that you come to experience if there is the almost impossible juncture, I don’t want to call it chance, of two crossings in which you are present. It is a memory, because in one or in some variants of time you experienced it or you will experience it, which is the same. And it is not a memory, because most likely in your line of variants it has not happened nor is it ever going to happen."
"Let's go," I said. "Pay and let's go, because I've had enough for today."
Strangely grudgingly, for whatever reason, Gorodischer does allow us to piece together references to a hidden mysticism in Trafalgar's character buried beneath his carefree adventure-hero veneer, and the better stories in the collection do tend to accrete around some kernel of mind-expanding Borgesian fabulation. "Trafalgar and Josefina," for one, struck me as vaguely reminiscent of a story like "The Lottery in Babylon": in it, we hear third-hand of an extraterrestrial society with both an elaborate hereditary caste system and an elected monarch, the democratic lord of the ruling lordly caste. We are soon given to understand, in a twist worthy of Borges, that "the Lord of Lords is the ultimate slave, a slave who lives like a king, eats like a king, dresses like a king, but is still a slave." Unfortunately, the plot itself dissolves into a daring escape narrative after Trafalgar commits a particularly egregious faux pas in this world of strict rules and caste divisions: like so many of the stories in Trafalgar, the story introduces a brilliant concept but fails to capitalize on it.
Another excellent, imaginative story narrated in a perplexing, even irritating fashion is "Mr. Chaos," the tale of a perfectly ordered society and a perfectly ordered people with a single holy fool living among them, a man possessed of a "true awareness of total order." By observing the dynamics of this society and then conversing with this "Mr. Chaos," Trafalgar can glimpse the connectedness of the apparently unconnected, and finally the connectedness of all thoughts, words, and things. Again, the premise and the sparseness of the plot recall a classic Borges thought experiment, "Funes the Memorious," which also explores a kind of total awareness located in a single individual. But we must keep in mind that Gorodischer's "Mr. Chaos" is still also a story that begins with tepid epigrams like this one: "When you go to a place of which you know nothing and no one, you have to seek out three things: bookstores, temples, and brothels." We find Gorodischer at her most purely mystical, even to the point of slight surrealism, in her story of xenolinguistics and the "world of symbols" Anandaha-A, "The Sense of the Circle." In spite of occasional disconnects between the narrative voice and the content of the story being told, "The Sense of the Circle" succeeds in evoking an alien race and an alien mode of thought tied to an alien mode of speech in a way similar to later watershed works like Jonatham Lethem's Girl in Landscape (1998) or, most recently, China Miéville's Embassytown (2011).
Other stories both delight and frustrate in a similar fashion. In "The González Family's Fight for a Better World," we hear of Trafalgar's misadventures in a world in which the dead don't stay dead and instead impose themselves in the political sphere, insisting that nothing must ever change for the living. This haunting premise could lend itself equally well to cosmic horror or to biting satire on reactionary politics, but Gorodischer plays it largely for slapstick: what could have been a powerful meditation on undeath becomes reduced to light farce, in a familiar pattern for Trafalgar. I also spent a long time trying to decide whether or not "Constancia," the tale of a beautiful but dangerous woman exiled on an otherwise deserted planet, was a cleverly inventive SF retelling of the popular medieval story of Constance, made particularly famous by Chaucer in his "Man of Law's Tale." By the time the particularly weak ending of the story arrived, I concluded that it almost surely wasn't, and that, even if it were, then it wasn't so clever after all. (That's not to say there aren't still some lovely lines in the story: "Books are my good luck and my misfortune.") The volume concludes with a paragraph-length story titled "Trafalgar and I," which I take to be an allusion to the famous Borges short short story "Borges and I," one of the crispest reflections on the space that writing creates between Author and the living human being that produced that author's works. Gorodischer's impressionist vignette takes inexpressibility rather than identity as its own subject, but it does also expand on a contention of one of her narrators that "stories choose one, one does not choose stories": Trafalgar, Gorodischer suggests, simply imposed himself and became, in a sense, his own author ("The Best Day of the Year"). Again, I simply don't know even such an act of autopoiesis always excuses his behavior.
The unevenness of the collection might tempt some readers to pick and choose from among the stories, but I should mention that a note from the author does ask that the stories be read as a unity and in order: "that way you and I will understand each other more easily" (p. ii). Although I did read the stories in order, some barriers still remained inhibiting the mutual understanding for which Gorodischer so endearingly hopes. And perhaps this is simply the academic in me, but I would have greatly appreciated some sort of contextualizing material for a non-South American audience, perhaps a full-fledged introduction or at the least a substantial translator's note (especially since the translator is herself a professor of Spanish). With its conversational style and through the familiar, knowingly jocular interactions that punctuate every story that Trafalgar tells to his fictional audiences, this collection emphasizes intimacy and connection—even invoking that concept of universal interconnection again and again across planet after planet—but in the end this by turns fascinating and frustrating book leaves this reader with an overwhelming feeling of something miscommunicated.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.