Trafalgar: A weird and wonderful book

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsTrafalgar by Angélica GorodischerTrafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer

Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer is a wonderful and deceptively complex little book that will play havoc with your mind in general and any preconceived genre expectations you may have in particular. I highly recommend grabbing it for that reason alone, but read on if you need more convincing.

Angélica Gorodischer is the Argentine author of more than twenty books, only two of which have been translated into English thus far. The first one of these was Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, no less. (We now briefly pause to let the contingent of readers who have just been convinced to read Gorodischer complete their online orders.)

Thanks to the wonderful folks at Small Beer Press, there’s now also Trafalgar, originally published in Spanish in 1979 and translated to English by Amalia Gladhart. (I can only hope someone will convince her to translate more Gorodischer. Kickstarter, anyone?)

You can call this book either a collection of stories, a novel, or both, in much the same way Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin can be either or both. The stories are loosely connected, share the same protagonist, and are best read in order, as the author carefully points out before you get started. The lovely Small Beer Press edition I received says “A Novel” on the cover, so, well, let’s go with that.

The common protagonist in these stories is the incomparable Trafalgar Medrano, an intergalactic merchant who, between his voyages to planets far and wide, returns to Rosario, his hometown in Argentina, where he enjoys drinking surreal amounts of coffee and regaling his friends with tales of his improbable adventures in space.

The framing story running through the stories describes Trafalgar as he spends time with his friends, frequently in the Burgundy, which sounds like it might be the coolest, classiest drinking establishment in the Southern hemisphere. We learn some details about the friends he’s talking to, about their families, about the Burgundy’s proprietor. Mostly the focus is on Trafalgar, a born raconteur who spins the yarn of his adventures on other planets with sometimes exasperating gusto.

Since Trafalgar is the one telling the stories, we have to trust his word, but since his friends are the ones hearing them, there’s a second filter. Those friends occasionally question him or, more often than not, try to get him back to his point. (In a typically sly twist, the only story in the book that actually has Trafalgar’s name in its title describes two family members chatting about a meeting with Trafalgar, which puts yet another layer between the reader and the merchant’s adventures.)

Superficially, Trafalgar’s journeys to other planets seem to follow the pattern of any number of classic SF stories: main character lands on planet X, which has such and such characteristics, which affects its population (or terrain, or weather, or…) in a number of ways. Once the writer has explained these parameters, they then become a factor in the story’s resolution. See, for example, the Polesotechnic League stories by Poul Anderson, whose characters Nicholas Van Rijn and Dominic Flandry feel like distant relatives of Trafalgar Medrano.

In Trafalgar, Angélica Gorodischer deconstructs these classically patterned SF stories in a number of ways, the most interesting one being that the planets Trafalgar visits usually aren’t all that different from Earth in terms of scientific parameters like orbit or gravity. Instead, they’re more like miniature fantasy universes in which one major supernatural factor is altered: there’s no death, or the inhabitants perceive time differently, or the balance between order and chaos is off. Sure, Trafalgar supposedly uses a spaceship (affectionately referred to as “the clunker”) to get where he’s going, but he might as well be entering a fantasy portal. There’s even a story where he lands on a parallel version of 15th century Earth.

So, even though these stories follow classic SF patterns, they’re much more firmly rooted in fantasy. Except, well, some of them use technology to explain: maybe there’s a planetary shield that blocks a star’s radiation causing or preventing a certain effect. Then again, that effect may be more magical than scientifically plausible.

Calling this “science fantasy” would be shortchanging how cleverly this book subverts expectations. We’re reading second-hand (in one case, third-hand) accounts of interplanetary adventures that disguise fantasy concepts as science fiction tropes. Or possibly vice versa. Those accounts are then placed in a contemporary South American setting. Remove Trafalgar Medrano’s outrageous tales, and what you have left is a story set in Rosario, an entirely recognizable city in Argentina — or possibly a parallel version of Rosario, if we’re to go with that one story about Trafalgar landing in 1492 Spain to speed up Columbus’ expedition…

This book was originally published in 1979. Angélica Gorodischer was applying the same forces to science fiction as authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar were applying to realism at more or less the same time. Revolution and social restrictions are recurring themes, adding yet another layer to some of these stories: even though the political reality of 1970’s Argentina is more or less invisible in the framing story, it’s hard not to feel it shine through in stories like “The Gonzalez Family’s Fight For a Better World” and “Trafalgar and Josefina”.

Another way Gorodischer twists the traditional space merchant stereotype is by gradually chipping away at its typical machismo. Trafalgar Medrano is a bit of a boor, again similar to Poul Anderson’s Nicholas Van Rijn, but he’s constantly being called out on his attitudes by his female interlocutors. They indulge him, rather than admire him. They question his actions, hurry him along, get irritated when he’s too long-winded. It’s the meta-fictional equivalent of throwing peanuts from the stands at a grandstanding star.

The highlight of this is the central story “Trafalgar and Josefina,” in which Trafalgar has actually been kicked off the stage. He’s being talked about instead of talking about himself, reduced to being the passive subject of an animated discussion between two women. Not coincidentally, both sides of this story — the discussion happening in Rosario and the events happening to Trafalgar on another planet — are focused on the restrictive social expectations placed on women, past versus present. Once you’re done, trace a line from the farcical opening story to the final one, and see where Gorodischer has taken this character.

Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer is a weird and wonderful book, an experimental concept full of meta-fictional wizardry delivered in a consistently entertaining, frequently funny package. It woke me up like one of Trafalgar Medrano’s impossibly strong cups of coffee, making me imagine what this genre could be if we had more books like this.

Retired reviewer Stefan Raets now runs his own blog at Far Beyond Reality

Publication Date: January 29, 2013. Don’t rush Trafalgar Medrano when he starts telling you about his latest intergalactic sales trip. He likes to stretch things out over precisely seven coffees. No one knows whether he actu-ally travels to the stars, but he tells the best tall tales in the city, so why doubt him? Trafalgar is Angélica Gorodischer’s second novel to be translated into English. Her first, Kalpa Imperial, was selected for the New York Times summer reading list. Angélica Gorodischer lives in Rosario, Argentina. She has received many awards, most recently the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit’s staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for the review! Just added it to my list.

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