Literature is the natural home of the impossible. But far too often the impossible is spurned in favor of the prosaic, as if truth dressed itself only in flannel.
Argentine fiction, from Borges to Cortázar to Puig, has never had this problem. Its fiction is already a foreign world, even to itself; when it visits other worlds, yet stranger places, it paradoxically finds itself right at home.
But until recently, the leisurely, fantastical fictions of Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer have remained all too foreign to an English-speaking audience. Though she’s been writing since the 1970s, only two of her books have been translated—both in Oregon. Her story cycle Kalpa Imperial was translated by Portland writer Ursula K. Le Guin in 2003. This year, another book of linked stories, Trafalgar, was translated by University of Oregon Spanish professor Amalia Gladhart.
The book is a thing of digression and casual wonderment. Each story is an oft-interrupted tale told by Trafalgar Medrano—named after the decisive defeat of the Spanish and Napoleonic navies—of his visits to foreign worlds where:
(a) The thousand virgins (who aren’t virgins) exert tyrannical control over a poor populace that wants only to become them.
(b) Ferdinand and Isabella still reign, in a court troubled by the Inquisition.
(c) The dead hang around to make life impossible for the living.
(d) All of time exists at once as a manifold, touching down at different points as one sleeps.
But these stories are not set in some unknowable future; Trafalgar spins his yarns at the Jockey Club in Rosario, Argentina, in 1979. No one knows whether he has indeed traveled to the stars and seduced alien women (he’s a bit of a cad). No one knows if he is a man of spectacular facility or simply a spectacular liar.
It also doesn’t matter: Gorodischer’s mix of unlikely precision and patiently dreamy excursiveness makes a cup of coffee seem ethereal while an alien sun becomes dully quotidian. Gladhart’s translation elegantly captures this quality in a disorienting mix of the lyric and pedestrian, as in Trafalgar’s description of the world of Veroboar: “When it’s day it seems like night, and when it’s night, you turn on the strongest light you have and you can barely see your hands because the darkness swallows everything.”
Like Borges, or Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities, Gorodischer’s fiction exists in a twilight space between literature and fantasy, or makes such distinctions impossible. By the end of the book, the worlds Trafalgar visits no longer seem strange at all. But the outlines of our own familiar world feel much less distinct, our own faces stranger in the mirror.