Coffee aficionado, merchant, outer space adventurer: The philosophical meanderings of Angelica Gorodischer’s ‘Trafalgar’

May 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 18, 2015

Trafalgar is an engaging anthology of stories about the adventures and misadventures of Trafalgar Medrano. This mischievous space-faring merchant hails from Rosario, a key Argentinian port on the Paraná River. (The city, which is real, is about 185 miles upriver from Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital.)

The book was written by Angélica Gorodischer, a longtime resident of Rosario who won a World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 2011. Trafalgar was first published in 1979; an English translation by Amalia Gladhart appeared in 2013.

All of Trafalgar’s tales are literally that — stories told by the merchant. A few come to us secondhand — in one account, Medrano describes one journey to a group of men playing cards; in another, the narrator’s 84-year-old Aunt Josefina relates a story that Medrano told her the other day about a tragic love affair on a distant world. There’s also a monologue delivered to an unknown individual.

Most of the time, however, Medrano seems to be speaking to a woman in Rosario — typically, one presumes, the author herself, or at least someone who shares her profession. (The story told in the group setting, about a beautiful scientist who joins the mysterious frenzied dances of a primitive race on a remote world, appears to have been passed on to the author by one of those present, although it’s not clear whom.)

By framing her narrative this way, Gorodischer is exploring the experience of hearing stories.

The stories themselves have engaging premises. On one stiflingly bureaucratic planet, Medrano accidentally seduces one of the rulers and has to hot-tail it back to his freighter, which he refers to only as “the clunker.” In “Of Navigators,” Medrano stumbles upon another Earth that lags our timeline by 500 years and flies Columbus and his crew to the New World; there, too, Medrano must leave abruptly when a conniving priest becomes jealous of how the outsider has become an important adviser to Queen Isabel.

In “The Best Day of the Year,” other circumstances prompt his departure: Every day, Medrano is flung to a different era of the planet’s history, a temporal dislocation that he finds jarring, to say the least. “The González Family’s Fight for a Better World” is perhaps the most traditional narrative: Upon finding a backwards, economically underdeveloped planet, Medrano works to help the natives overcome the unique affliction from which they suffer. In other chapters, Medrano discovers a race of people who are composed of fire and finds a mysterious deposed queen who claims to have fled from her subjects, but who may have a more malevolent agenda.

But these are not really tales of adventure; rather, they resemble fables. “The González Family’s Fight…” explores the disadvantages of excessive fidelity to the past. “Mr. Chaos” is about the perils of knowing too much about how the universe works, a sense acquired by the titular character, a resident of the planet Aleiçarga:

“He was primordial chaos,” [Medrano] said while the water heated and I washed the coffee pot. “He saw the forms and so what he said seemed unformed; he lived all times and so he spoke without order; he was so complete that one couldn’t span him fully but saw him fragmented, and so normal that the Aleiçarganos said he was crazy. I think he was what we should have already become.”

Trafalgar picked up the coffee pot and we went back to the garden where the cat was lying in wait for gray moths that had come to the light. He drank a cup of coffee and took cigarettes and he offered them to me but I don’t smoke the black ones.

“I don’t know how you can smoke that trash,” he said. “It rusts your lungs.”

“Oh, of course, the black ones don’t.”

“They do, too, but less.” He served himself more coffee.

Medrano and his audience (typically the narrator) are characters in most of the tales. She finds him infuriating — he speaks digressively, frequently pausing until he’s prompted to resume his story; he requires coffee in order to talk but usually dismisses the beverages she brews for him; his smugness is irksome. And yet she finds his stories intriguing.

For his part, Medrano is just philosophical enough about his experiences to avoid being an irredeemable braggart. And while he’s unapologetically capitalist, he’s not above a sentimental gesture, or a charitable one. Medrano also insists on visiting new planets because his interest in knowledge and discovery is nearly as strong as his desire for profit and luxury. I was surprised at how quickly Medrano seemed to become a fully fledged person with familiar quirks. One gets the feeling that he’s always the most interesting man in the room, no matter which room he’s in, or what planet he’s on.

Trafalgar ends with a two-paragraph tale in which the title character expresses the futility of any attempt to capture certain mundane yet meaningful events. It’s an odd note on which to finish, and yet a fitting one given how many of the stories turn on seemingly random or unimportant encounters.

I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure who to recommend it to. I suppose those best suited to reading Trafalgar would, like Medrano himself, be seekers of the unusual, the exotic and the novel.

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