March 2013

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Mr. Chaos

"MEDRANO, TRAFALGAR: Born in Rosario [Argentina], 2 October, 1936... His parents hoped he would study medicine, but after a brief incursion into the university cloisters, the young Medrano chose to dedicate himself to commerce." That we know from the entry on Trafalgar Medrano in Who's Who in Rosario, which Angélica Gorodischer gives as an introduction to her book about him (which is called Trafalgar). "He displays extremely simple tastes: fine cuisine, without excesses; fine wines, even more sparingly; cats, music, black coffee, cigarettes, reading…; [and] the company of friends, among whom he names with particular affection... Angélica Gorodischer." Traflagar is often (and often extendedly) absent from Rosario on business, but "He habitually frequents the Burgundy," which is where Gorodischer is with him in the first story of her book ("By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon").

Trafalgar Medrano is in the import-export business, and his trading takes him... all over. But when he sees them -- or when they see him, as the case may more likely be -- he's happy to take the time to tell his friends about his travels over several cups of black coffee and a chain of cigarettes (also black), his taste for both of which is certainly understated in the official profile of Trafalgar Medrano that we're given in the introduction to Trafalgar. That profile also fails to enumerate Trafalgar Medrano's appetite for trysts in its list of his simple tastes -- although, sure, that one might not be so simple. It's why he's shaved his mustache, which is why his friend Angélica Gorodischer almost doesn't recognize him at the Burgundy at the beginning of that first story. He's been to Verobar, where he'd found himself in bed with one Lapis Lazuli (one of The Thousand there on Verobar), and so on and so on. "I had been selling reading material in the Seskundrea system, seven clean, shiny little worlds on which visual reading is a luxury. A luxury I introduced, by the way. Texts were listened to or read by touch there," he tells his friend. "The rabble still does that, but I have sold books and magazines to everyone who thinks they're somebody. I had to land on Verobar, which isn't very far away, to have a single induction screen checked, and I took the opportunity to sell the surplus." Well, well.

For my part, I never permitted that Trafalgar Medrano might not have actually traveled space. His friend Angélica Gorodischer might intimate her own incredulity, but I was more than happy to suspend every bit of my disbelief to the extent necessary for Trafalgar to get through each of his stories. What Trafalgar himself might be trying to get across in recounting any one of them -- or what Gorodischer might be trying to convey in having collected them -- is, however, up for spacious interpretation.

Angélica Gorodischer was born in Buenos Aires in 1929, and her book about Trafalgar Medrano was originally published in Spanish in 1979. Three and a half decades later, here we're given Trafalgar in English translation by University of Oregon Spanish professor Amalia Gladhart. Gorodischer, the publisher of Trafalgar tells us, is a master of science fiction, as well as an exemplar of the South American fantasy tradition. In 2013, to be taken to the stars and then back to 1979 Rosario, Argentina. What does it all mean?

The world (the worlds?) must certainly have changed since Angélica Gorodischer wrote Trafalgar. But alas! The human (and humanoid-extraterrestrial) condition... maybe not so much. Across the years that have spanned Trafalgar's journeys in his "clunker" of a spacecraft with the development of social media and smartphones, the intrinsic problems that associate social interaction and world(s)-wide social organization appear to have changed very little. And I'm not concerned with the factuality of every particular tale, be it from Verobar or Uunu or Serprabel. It's a matter of course that they should each be colored by a degree of personal embellishment: every one of the stories collected by Gorodischer in Trafalgar is an imperfect picture of the best of all possible worlds, a tryst with the extreme of one or another of our world(s)' social conceits, fairly easily visible, leaving the reader only the task of deciphering the entertainment to be had from the fact of each and every society's terrible caprice (another of the simple pleasures disregarded in the official profile of Trafalgar Medrano).

I'll take one. It's from "Mr. Chaos."

Trafalgar Medrano, in medias res -- and again in communion with Angélica Gorodischer -- has been on Aleiçarga. "'One's used to the word perfect and we use it when something went well, end of story. But if something is perfect perfect, without fissures or mending, then it is very bad,' he smoked and drank coffee and maybe looked around for the cat." Exceptionally, Trafalgar has not met any women of note on Aleiçarga. He has, however, met a man, and that man is the exception. On Aleiçrga, everyone does fine. "Everyone has a placid face and smiles one in a while but no one guffaws, no one yells, no one runs to catch the bus and if they catch it they don't fight with the driver and if they don't catch it they don't swear." It seems for a moment like Traflagar might be indicting the pitfalls of an extremely hypothesized socialism from his intergalactic perspective on 1979:

"The Aleiçarganos? ... With the wheel, fire, writing, a little bit of empirical medicine, another bit of engineering and architecture, also empirical, and no birth control or natural catastrophes or dangerous animals, they expanded and from the beginning they had a single state, a single government, plenty of work, no religion or poetry or politics."

"Wars," I thought. "There will have been wars, invasions, dethroned kings, junior officers with imperial ambitions, assassinations for power, don't tell me no."

"I'm telling you no. Those who are most fit to govern, govern. Those who are most fit to operate are surgeons. Those who are most fit to drive a tractor."

"Drive a tractor, thank you, I get it. But then without visionaries, without ambitions or schemers or prophets or delusionals, can you tell me how they moved forward?"

"Very slowly. They are very old and they had a lot of time."

Ms. Gorodischer is incredulous. But then enter Mr. Chaos. Trafalgar overhears him as he's walking somewhere, and then they commune. He's a degenerate, a "crazy" by the standards of Aleiçarga, and that's why he lives away from the rest of its people, in the woods. "But don't think about Thoreau, think about the savages." Mr. Chaos can't assimilate (is allowed by the benevolent position of the authorities not to), but, ironically, in his impossible degeneracy, he speaks the language of universal synchronicity (and not, here, mind you, the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, "That's from Vonnegut" -- and another story). The ironically chaotic interactive mode of Mr. Chaos is what "Aleiçarga had finally acquired, like no other world in the universe... the true awareness of total order." And it's utter absurdity. Mr. Chaos, for most intents and purposes, is a crazy. But he might be the salvation of Aleiçarga.

"Mr. Chaos," like the rest of the stories in Trafalgar, is open to spacious interpretation. But I single it out of the rest of them, in medias res, exactly for that reason. Trafalgar is a collection of stories, but as Angélica Gorodischer has collected them it's a novel. And after she gives us our introduction to Trafalgar Medrano in her introduction, the author gives us a caveat:

From here on, dear reader, kind reader, even before you begin to read this book, I must ask you a favor: do not go straight to the index to look for the shortest story or the one that has a title that catches your attention. Since you are going to read them, for which I thank you, read them in order. Not because they follow chronologically, though there is something of that, but because that way you and I will understand each other more easily.

Thank you.

And I did (read them in order in which they were given), but to the effect that I thought that maybe I shouldn't have -- to the extent that maybe I did succeed in understanding the personal (authorial?) position of the collector better, but not necessarily to any imperative effect: to the extent that I wondered if that order was just another organizational conceit. The collection of stories that comprises Trafalgar reads well as a novel (in order) from beginning to end, but after I'd read the stories in their given order I wondered if they might read just as well, in a way, mixed up. I won't claim to know anything more than I do about the South American fantasy tradition, which isn't much. And I can't even claim the one book I know by Cortázar to be part of it. But I will wonder (loudly) out loud if the stories in Trafalgar couldn't also be read effectively out of order a la Rayuela, a game of hopscotch against the semiotic phantoms that constitute our arguments over our collective future past. The pieces, ad infinitum, come together eventually. So dump the ashtray, more coffee... and look around for the cat, maybe. One hopes the friend who's found us in all that infinite space has time for a story.