by Ursula Le Guin.
Panther Books 1976
These eleven tales set in the Ten Provinces of the imaginary country of Orsinia are bleak yet beautiful, vivid but melancholic, tinted with the grey dust of limestone plains, the wet surfaces of urban streets, and the golden light of autumnal groves.
Peopling these landscapes are quarrymen, nobles, musicians, factory workers, doctors, academics; whether eking out their lives in the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years War, or the tumultuous years of the twentieth century, characters speak of the fragility of human existence, of their cautious optimism and of individual heroism.
Writing during the long postwar period of the Cold War Ursula Le Guin invests her subjects with the humanity they deserve, allowing us episodic views of a land that draws not on one specific country but from many Central and Eastern European polities; extraordinarily she depicts an entirely credible geographical entity rooted in reality, despite telling us in the final tale in this collection, set in 1935, that
all this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.
Her stark landscapes are incorporated in Peter Goodfellow’s cover design for the first UK paperback edition: a snowy countryside inspired by the Bruegels shows a distant tower, Vermare Keep, above which corvids wheel; breaking the whiteness are poles topped by what may be platforms for stork nests or for exposing human bodies; closer is the curve of a burial mound and, nearer still, a cairn from which protrudes a sword, the stones stained by fresh blood from which rooks tug bits of flesh. This illustrates the second tale, ‘The Barrow’, with its ideological conflict between the Church and what it sees as heresy, and behind that an older religion.
Before this tale ‘The Fountains’ describes an academic’s brief savouring of intellectual and physical freedom from state surveillance during a 1960 visit to Versailles in Paris, a piece which sets the theme of the collection: Adam Kereth’s specialism is cytology, the study of individual cells in a body, and a discipline which intentionally echoes Le Guin’s intention for the themes in Orsinian Tales. It’s the only story set outside Orsinia, for throughout what follows we embark on a tour of the country’s provinces — Sudana and Montayna, the Northern Marches, Polana, Molsena, the Western Marches, Perana, Kesena and Sovena, and Frelana — with many tales also featuring the capital, Krasnoy.
I could spell out at length the strengths of each individual piece but that would rob potential readers of the delight of discovering them themselves, so instead I shall mention a couple of features that most impressed me. Many of the tales were focused on relationships, whether sibling (as in ‘Ile Forest’) or heterosexual (‘The House’) or homosocial (‘A Week in the Country’); whether characterised by familiarity, or tragedy, or regret, the lives portrayed are ones one can’t help feeling empathy and compassion for. Music is another strand running through the collection: an early short story, from 1961, borrowing its title from a Schubert song ‘An die Musik’, is a meditation on the creative process, while song refrains emerge in ‘Conversations at Night’ and in ‘A Week in the Country’. Orsinia itself represents a third strand — its provinces, its geographical variety tempered by human activity, its Mitteleurop climate:
A long cloud slowly dissolved into a pinkish mist in the eastern sky, and then the sun’s rim, like the lip of a cauldron of liquid steel, tipped over the edge of the world, pouring out daylight.
— ‘Conversations at Night’
Seemingly separate narratives, the eleven tales in the collection are linked through the recurrence of certain localities and, in a couple of pieces, through one family across generations. Above all there is a uniformity of sensitivity, observation and tone which makes this book far more than the sum of its parts. I’ve now read Orsinian Tales three times since the 1970s, and it’s a measure of its intrinsic quality that I’ve appreciated it even more each time. For those who see Le Guin as only a author of speculative fiction here is evidence of a great lyrical writer, one who also has much to say about an individual’s contribution to the river of being:
For heroes do not make history — that is the historians’ job — but, passive, let themselves be borne along, swept up to the crest of the tide of change, of chance, of war.
— ‘The Lady of Moge’
A review for my Library of Brief Narratives series. I hope to post more about Orsinia after I’ve read and reviewed Le Guin’s Malafrena, also set in this world