Angélica Gorodischer, Palito de naranjo (2014)

October 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Para empezar, a las mujeres encarceladas nadie las visita nunca.  A los varones sí, siempre.  Siempre la mujer o la madre, y hasta la hija, pero eso es más raro, va los jueves a las dos de la tarde con paquetes de comida y de ropa, a veces con revistas, a veces con un ejemplar de la Biblia.  Eso es maravilloso, no solo porque una ve una cara conocida y porque siente que a alguien le importa que ella esté en donde está, sino porque la visita significa que el tiempo existe.  Es maravilloso porque entre una visita y otra se escanden las horas, los minutos, los meses.  Si no hay visitas el tiempo es un largo, larguísimo intervalo blanquecino entre dos paréntesis, la vida que se va olvidando y la esperanza que va desapareciendo, convirtiéndose en otra cosa, en algo algodonoso y turbio que reclama que una lo vea y lo toque, y una sabe que no hay que rendirse a la tentación de hacerlo porque si lo hace, si toca eso, nunca va a encontrar no digo consuelo, nunca va a encontrar ni la más mínima tranquilidad, ni el más insignificante jirón de sueño.  Pero si alguien llega de visita, si viene este martes o este jueves y una puede imaginar que va a venir el próximo también, entonces el tiempo existe:  hay horas, hay días, hay espera.  El varón encarelado tiene otro horizonte a la vista y en ese horizonte está escrito «cuando yo salga ella va a estar esperándome».  A una mujer nunca la va a estar esperando alguien.  Y ella lo sabe.  Sabe que el afuera va a ser una prolongación del adentro.  Es posible que piense «aquello era preferible a esto».  Y para seguir, la mujer que está en la cárcel no encuentra nunca alguien con quien hablar.  Y no me refiero a conversaciones ni a confidencias.  Me refiero a palabras que van de una persona a otra.  ¿Ha pensado usted alguna vez que cada palabra que se pronuncia es como un morral o un zurrón que contiene carne y sangre y hueso, historia, intenciones y horror, sobre todo horror?  ¿Ese horror que es el precio que una paga por imaginar lo que de un momento al otra le va a suceder?  ¿Se ha dado cuenta de que las palabras lo traen, al horror, digo; de que las palabras no son solo sonidos ni una letra detrás de la otra sino que cada una contiene un mundo? (p. 29, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer has had several genre careers within her lengthy writing life.  From a SF writer in the 1970s to a fantasy writer in the 1980s to a contemporary fiction writer who focuses on feminism and society for the past two decades, her works, diverse as they are, have a few things in common:  PoV characters who probe deeply into their societies’ fault lines and prose that makes these examinations feel not just important, but vital for understanding our own selves and our own places in societies that may or may not be conducive for the lives that we wish to live.  In her just-released novel, Palito de naranjo (Orange Stick in English), Gorodischer utilizes a singular character, Féry, to tell of not just the burdens that the dispossessed experience today, but also the joys that they might experience on the other side of suffering.

Palito de naranjo is dialogue-heavy; almost the entire novel is devoted to the conversations that the aged Féry, who has experienced privation and incarceration, relates to an interviewer.  The stories that Féry has embedded within her comments on her rough life (the lengthy quote above is about the different prison lives that men and women experience; Féry notes the numerous visits that male prisoners receive weekly from female relatives and compares that to the near-non-existent visitors for female prisoners) are fascinating.  Characters appear in one place, living solely through Féry’s ability to make them seem alive even when they are present only for a singular moment or sentence before giving way to another.  As Féry talks, the contours of her life comes into greater focus.  The cumulative effect is to present, similar to a finely-detailed mosaic, a life that is fascinating for its experiences and its insights into modern life.

The prose here is nearly pitch-perfect.  A dialogue-heavy novel can be tricky, as the author risks loses the reader’s attention can wander if there are not breaks in the conversation and it can become easy to confound which speaker is talking at any given moment.  Yet Gorodischer manages to make this into a vivid character sketch, as Féry’s detailed accounts of her life and the people she has come to know works well within the strictures of dialogue description of these others.  As Féry talks, she begins to describe situations and people that are notable despite never speaking of their own accord.  We come to understand Féry more through her descriptions of these fellow travelers than we might have if these characters were presented through direct interactions with Féry in flashback sequences.

There is no single concrete plot here, instead it is through Féry’s numerous recollections of her past that we come to see that it is her life, her time as a prostitute and an inmate, that is the plot arc we are following.  We see her at critical points in her life, sometimes in a bitter lamentation over the social inequalities that women experience in all facets of their lives, other times in her reminisces of others in her life, and the crises that she describes (and has largely overcome in her path toward some measure of contentment, if not full happiness) feel real because of the way they are related to us.  There are no lulls to the tale; Féry slowly yet steadily builds toward a solid, moving conclusion.  Palito de naranjo may differ significantly in form and purpose than say Kalpa Imperal or Bajo las jubeas en flor, but it is no less of a significant work than these two older works of Gorodischer’s.  Highly recommended for those who are fans of her earlier fictions.

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (1979; English translation 2013)

February 17th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial (1983, 1984)

November 23rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Angélica Gorodischer category at Gogol's Overcoat.