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Trafalgar by Angelica Gorodischer (trans Amalia Gladheart)

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When you run into Trafalgar Medrano at the Burgundy or the Jockey Club and he  tells you about his latest intergalactic sales trip, don’t try to rush. Trafalgar likes to stretch things out over six or seven coffees. No one knows whether he actually travels to the stars, but he’s the best storyteller around, so why not sit back, let Marcos bring you something refreshing and enjoy the story?
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Gorodischer’s set of linked stories is one of the best known translated works of science fiction from Latin America; although Trafalgar may not even be speculative fiction…

Trafalgar, as the blurb says, is a series of anecdotes recounted by Trafalgar Medrano; but for the most part, they’re not transmitted to the reader directly by him – the exception, ‘The Gonzalez Family’s Fight For A Better World’, has asides to his imagined audience, largely about coffee. These anecdotes are retold, along with the framing narrative of our first-person narrator bumping into Trafalgar, in a stylish, amusing style; hence we can go from Trafalgar talking, in long first-person paragraphs, to the mundanity of Marcos delivering coffee to the table, or Trafalgar asking his interlocutor for a refill. It’s an interesting narrative approach, especially given the outrageousness of his stories; with the exception of ‘Trafalgar and Josefina’, told by an aunt to our narrator, the truth and accuracy of Trafalgar’s recountings are essentially unquestioned. Hence, after much of the book has passed, we’re suddenly strongly introduced to the possibility that the irrepressible raconteur is an unreliable narrator of his own adventures. Gorodischer shines an interesting light backwards onto the preceding stories, to interesting authorial effect.

The anecdotes themselves are extraordinary and absurd, absolutely the stories of a raconteur; they have a sort of swashbuckling sense to them, with Trafalgar playing the role of explorer, saviour of damsels in distress, political activist and never without resources. Trafalgar, across its ten stories, covers all sorts of different topics and areas, such as complex caste systems containing within them the seeds of their own destruction, temporally unmoored societies, orgasm machines and societies held back by their own dead… Each is complete in itself, although some link up with each other; and this adds a certain element of uncertainty, as the few cross-references between stories implies veracity (or well constructed lies), while the general lack of such implies the opposite. Gorodischer, again, holds and manipulates this balance excellently and beautifully to avoid stating absolutely the reliability of Trafalgar.

The characters are a more mixed bag. While Trafalgar himself, and our interlocutor, are both very well fleshed out, interesting and rounded characters with their own foibles and flaws, all too many of the characters in Trafalgar’s narratives blur together; Trafalgar, because it doesn’t dwell on its secondary characters, really just tells us about the eponymous Trafalgar, a sort of character study of the man through whose life flit various shades, passing across and affecting him but themselves not rounded or whole enough to be truly effected by him. It’s actually a strength of the work that this is the case, as the way the stories are told becomes itself part of the story; Trafalgar’s interest is in himself and his activities, and impressing his audience, primarily.

This, then, is a fascinating and wonderful collection whose self-fictionality is an open question; Gorodischer has written both a wonderful series of anecdotes and an interesting puzzle in Trafalgar.