|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Abigail Nussbaum on Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer
Space Adventure as Mercantile Venture
January 31st, 2013
BORN IN ARGENTINA in 1928, Angélica Gorodischer has been producing well-received science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction for more than four decades, for the most part completely under the radar of Anglophone readers. In 2003, Small Beer Press published Gorodischer’s 1983 novel-in-stories Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, but it’s taken another decade for English readers to get another glimpse of Gordischer’s fiction, this time her 1979 novel Trafalgar, translated by Amalia Gladhart.
The Trafalgar of the title is Trafalgar Medrano — merchant, collector, womanizer, and bon vivant, or so says the entry in Who’s Who in Rosario with which Trafalgar opens. Rosario is Gorodischer’s home town, and as if to further blur the line between fact and fiction, the Who’s Who entry numbers Gorodischer among Trafalgar’s friends. She also appears — unnamed but unmistakable — as one of several narrators in Trafalgar, each of whom describes an encounter with the eponymous hero. In each of these chapters, Trafalgar and the narrator sit, either at the latter’s home or at one of the tables in the Burgundy — “the well known establishment that has seen pass through its premises in the 1100 block of Córdoba so many of the city’s leading personalities” — but always over an endless stream of black coffee, made either inexpertly by his friends or perfectly by the Burgundy’s implacable waiter Marcos, as Trafalgar tells the story of some strange occurrence on one of his business trips.
So far, so mundane, and indeed the opening paragraphs of the first story in Trafalgar, “By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon,” seem to go out of their way to establish not only a familiar club story format but to fill in the details of that club in a way that makes them seem — certainly to readers in 2013, but presumably also to those in 1979 — almost old-fashioned:
The Burgundy is one of those bars of which there aren’t many left, if there are any at all. None of that Formica or any fluorescent lights or Coca Cola. Gray carpet — a little worn — real wood tables and real wood chairs, a few mirrors against the wood paneling, small windows, a single door and a façade that says nothing. Thanks to all this, inside there’s a lot of silence and anyone can sit down to read the paper or talk with someone else or even do nothing, seated at a table with a cloth, white crockery dishes, and real glass, like civilized people use, and a serious sugar bowl, and without anyone, let alone Marcos, coming to bother them.
This old-timey feeling serves all the better to wrong-foot readers when Trafalgar’s latest interlocutor remarks, upon hearing the beginning of his story, that “I have never known if it is true or not that Trafalgar travels to 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 matter a bit to him.” Whether or not we’re meant to believe Trafalgar’s stories — and, with the exception of Angélica’s eighty-four-year-old aunt Josefina, who assumes that Trafalgar is telling her a story about a journey to India, the novel’s various narrators for the most part affect a bemused credulousness, clearly more interested in hearing his stories than in questioning their believability — what the novel that bears his name is made up of are the matter-of-fact recountings of his travels to places with names like Belanius III or Anandaha-A, where he finds a perfect recreation of the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, with Columbus about to depart for the New World (“Of Navigators”), or discovers a city separated into tiers according to its citizens’ caste and ruled over by a king chosen from among its vagabonds (“Trafalgar and Josefina”), or meets a woman who claims to have escaped being forced into an orgy with her world’s gods (“Constancia”).
Some of the stories in Trafalgar slot quite neatly into familiar SF tropes — ”The Best Day of the Year” is a neat time-travel puzzle with a solution that feels fresh even three decades after it was written, and “The González Family’s Fight for a Better World” would be called a zombie story if it were written today, though readers tired of this trope will be pleased to discover an original twist on this by now hoary material. Others, meanwhile, are interludes, some sad (in “The Sense of the Circle,” a scientist studying an incomprehensible alien culture becomes subsumed by it despite her best efforts), others farcical (“By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon” sees Trafalgar trying to get out a legal bind by wooing a planetary leader, only to end up in a bed he wasn’t supposed to be in), yet others contemplative (“Mr. Chaos” is a story about a world in which everything is ordinary and predictable, and only one man still represents the chaos principle).
Nevertheless, the stories are clearly of a piece. As Angélica acidly remarks in “The Best Day of the Year”: “your stories are always the same: a bunch of strange things happen to you, you throw yourself, generally successfully, at the prettiest one around there, you earn piles of dough, and what do you spend it on? On bitter coffee and black cigarettes and Pugliese records.” But if that description conjures up Golden Age pulp adventures, in which a devil-may-care hero bounces from one exotic locale to another, involving himself in intrigues and revolutions while romancing a princess or priestess (who is, of course, entirely human-looking and also breathtakingly beautiful), Gorodischer’s take on this genre compels us to see how undeniably, immovably bourgeois Trafalgar is.
Not for Trafalgar the life of the vagabond or the outlaw. He is eccentric, not disreputable, and the doctors and lawyers of his social set, though they cluck at his childish misadventures, are never ashamed to be seen with him (though perhaps the fact that he is, as the narrator of “Chaste Electronic Moon” points out, “fabulously rich” plays a part). He is a merchant who travels the stars, trading not in exotic alien gems or new technologies, but in solid, ordinary stock like tractors, musical instruments, and aspirin. His customers, too, though aliens living on far-flung planets, aspire to a very familiar middle-class standard of living — when Josefina repeats Trafalgar’s latest story to Angélica, she approvingly reports that “the level of development in everything, color televisions and airlines and telephones with a view screen and computer centers, is impressive.” And Trafalgar himself, when setting the scene for one his stories or simply establishing whether a planet is worth visiting, reports first on the amenities — how comfortable are the hotels, how good is the food, how courteous is the service, is there any decent coffee. This is space adventure as a mercantile venture, with Trafalgar’s wanderlust balanced by his love for his record collection, his fine paintings, and the ancestral home in which he is attended by “his faithful servants.” And yet it is precisely because Trafalgar’s aims and wishes are so ordinary and familiar that the numinousness of his adventures shines so clearly. Only a man to whom a good drink in good company is the epitome of life’s desires could make, as Trafalgar does in the book’s short, closing chapter, the experience of a friendly cup of a tea with a stranger seem like an adventure.
It is perhaps because Gorodischer works so strenuously to bring Trafalgar down to earth and puncture his somewhat Han Solo-ish self-image (“Trafalgar acts like a know-it-all but he never learns,” Angélica airily tells Josefina. “He always sticks his foot in it.”) that his attitudes towards women come to seem glaringly paternalistic — perhaps to a greater degree than Gorodischer intended. As Angélica points out, wherever he goes Trafalgar makes a point of throwing himself at the prettiest girl around, usually with some success, and though these women are not just simpering maidens waiting to be plucked by a dashing adventurer — they are rulers, scientists, revolutionaries, and outlaws, usually with an agenda of their own that Trafalgar helps to advance — one can’t, eventually, escape the impression that their accomplishments and agendas exist mainly to make them more interesting as Trafalgar’s love interests (and, sometimes, foils). Locked in Trafalgar’s point of view, these women, no matter how independent or strong-willed, seem ultimately to exist only for his gratification (it is presumably no coincidence that every woman Trafalgar describes in his stories is stunningly beautiful — either plain women don’t exist on the planets he travels to, or he doesn’t see them).
Gorodischer and Angélica both poke fun at Trafalgar’s womanizing, but in a gentle, boys-will-be-boys fashion that seems more interested in infantilizing, and thus excusing, Trafalgar’s behavior than in confronting it. A more serious shock is delivered in the novel’s penultimate chapter, “Strelitzias, Lagerstroemias, and Gypsophil,” in which Trafalgar discovers that one of his indiscretions has saddled him with a half-alien daughter, whom he names Eritrea, but though this chapter puts him on the other side of the womanizing divide (when Eritrea becomes a teenager he announces that he “had already bought the shotgun and had it under the table ready to fill the first mother’s son ¡#%!!+°=¡!#~° grrr who might get close to his girl full of lead”), this merely perpetuates the perception that women exist solely for men’s gratification. Eritrea herself, meanwhile, though clever and resourceful (she saves the day and her father’s life in “Strelitzias”) is also a classic Daddy’s Girl, even more eager to indulge and forgive her father’s peccadilloes than his friends (not helping matters is the fact that Eritrea’s mother is an unloving harpy who abandons her with Trafalgar as an infant).
Nor is this the only aspect of Trafalgar that gives one pause: when, in “On Navigators,” Trafalgar finds himself so moved by his knowledge that the alternate Earth Columbus he has met is doomed to die destitute, as ours did, he comes up with a plan to carry Columbus and his men to South America in his spaceship. It’s hard to know how to react when Trafalgar tells Angélica of his and Columbus’s expedition that “We disembarked, we took possession.”
Still, this is, perhaps, to take Trafalgar — when all is said and done, still a novel about a middle-aged Argentinian merchant who just happens to travel to distant planets — a little more seriously than Gorodischer intended. If it’s not quite as easy to wink at Trafalgar’s womanizing, thoughtless chauvinism, and cultural insensitivity as Gorodischer would like (or, to put it another way, if she’s done a slightly better job at pointing out his womanizing, chauvinistic, insensitive tendencies than she’d planned), that still leaves a novel that is unlike anything I’ve ever read, one part pulp adventure to one part realistic depiction of the affluent, nearly-idle bourgeoisie, but always leaning more towards the former in its inventiveness and pure (if, sometimes, a little guilt-inducing) sense of fun. It’s a novel that persuasively makes the argument that we should have to wait a great deal less than another decade before seeing more of Gorodischer’s unique brand of science fiction translated into English.