Life in Orsinia

Malafrena - one of the stories in the Library
of America's "Complete Orsinia" by Ursula
K. Le Guin
I've recently been thinking about Ursula K. Le Guin, the highly-rated science fiction / fantasy writer; who I've never read. On a quest to find The left hand of darkness, one of her best known books, I failed to find Darkness but instead came across The complete Orsinia. Le Guin's Orsinian tales include her earliest writings. The American author wanted to write about Europe, but...: "I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I'd never been there. At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me."

This sounds like the entrance to Ruritania, and yes, there are elements of Le Guin's stories that edge onto Anthony Hope's romantic country; but Le Guin's Bohemian country - part- Czechoslovakia / part-Hungary / part-the lands that Patrick Leigh Fermor wandered about between the wars - is a rather more serious place. And by being no-country it becomes convincingly every-land.

The complete Orsinia published in a beautiful edition in the Library of America series contains all of Le Guin's Orsinian writings from the previously published Orsinian Tales, a series of stories (each helpfully dated) following the history of Orsinia from prehistoric times through medieval wars and sieges to the upheaval of the revolutionary 19th century and the dark days of the Soviet bloc. The stories are linked by place, and occasionally by character, and the author brilliantly creates a believable fantasy world that this reader happily sank into. Also included in the volume is the novel, Malafrena, a story of the 19th century - any lover of Victor Hugo, Stendhal (Charterhouse of Parma), or Joseph Roth (Radetzky March)- will adore this. A tale of youth, revolution, and family, it was an absorbing read. Also, oddly, the fact that the country was fictional made it more real; this could be any former country of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a German state, or even France...).

Accompanying these re-prints are some Orsinian songs (some in the original language!), and two previously un-published stories following Orsinia's latter days as part of the Eastern bloc, and the country's very own Velvet Revolution. The last story "Unlocking the air" which portrays the life-changing revolution - not the grand revolutionary moment of previous stories, but a gentle movement by thousands of ordinary people, I found especially poignant. As Le Guin says the revolution appeared to have come out of nothing, but in fact was built upon centuries of repeated struggle - and this is a theme that appears throughout her collection of Orsinian stories.

These are more than just a collection of stories about an imaginary country. Le Guin writes about big themes here : love and death, totalitarianism and liberty, youth and old age, friendship and loyalty. This is a magical book. I haven't yet read any other Le Guin, and I understand that her fantasy novels may be very different from her Orsinian tales, but after reading these I can't wait to read more by her. The complete Orsinia is a wonderful absorbing place in which to start becoming acquainted with her work.


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