I bought this book about ten years ago, both because I was intrigued by the premise, but also because it is translated from Spanish by one of my favourite authors — Ursula K. Le Guin. I’d never got round to reading it, but this season of translated speculative fiction has given me the perfect excuse!
Long is the history of the Empire, very long, so long that a whole life dedicated to study and research isn’t enough to know it wholly. There are names, events, years, centuries that remain dark, that are recorded in some folio of some archive waiting for some memory to rescue them or some storyteller to bring them back to life., in a tent like this, for people like you, who’ll go back home thinking about what you heard and look at your children with pride and a little sadness. As well as being long, the history of the Empire is complex: it’s not a simple tale in which one thing happens after another and the causes explain the effects and the effects are in proportion to the causes. Nothing of the kind.
The subtitle to Kalpa Imperial is ‘The Greatest Empire that Never Was’, and this describes a premise with ambitious scope: stories from a long history of a fantasy empire. There are eleven stories, starting with the humble beginnings of the Empire from the ruins of an old one, and taking in a dazzling array of emperors and empresses, cities and wars, golden ages and almost total destruction. The sheer scale of what is on offer is breathtaking (it must be many tens of thousands of years), but eventually you have to stop worrying about the history and just go along for the ride.
This is definitely a book to savour slowly — each of the stories can be read alone, since the settings for each are quite different, but reading them as a whole you get into a rhythm of the way history ebbs and flows. This is particularly striking in the story ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’, a history of the Empire’s capital city, from a hideout for bandits, to liberal arts paradise, army barracks, spa town, birthplace of an empress, site of pilgrimage, to a largely forgotten has-been and back again. The descriptions of the city are wonderful, where buildings have been built over other buildings for so long that it’s a towering architectural mess, and the story must cover many thousands of years.
That’s not to say that the whole book is written from this distance — the narrative often focuses on an individual and the effect their actions had on the empire. The first story, ‘Portrait of an Emperor’, follows disobedient and inquisitive Bib, who, unlike the rest of his people, is not intimidated by the ruins of a previous civilisation that surround them, and learns to use them to his advantage, thus becoming the first emperor. Another, ‘The End of a Dynasty, or the Natural History of Ferrets’, is about a young boy-emperor coming to terms with the death of his father, and what his rule should be like.
One of the things I liked best about the stories was the voice of the storyteller as a definite presence. There are interjections like “If anybody here isn’t interested in what I’m saying , they can leave. Go. Just try not to bother the others.” I didn’t find these as annoying as I might, rather I thought they provided a lovely reminder of storytelling as an active occupation, and made me think about who was telling these stories, where they had heard them, and who was listening and passing them onwards.
If you’d like to sample more, two of the stories from Kalpa Imperial are available to read online for free, linked from Small Beer Press.