Having recently completed and been impressed by Ursula K le Guin’s Malafrena (1979), a novel set in her imagined country of Orsinia in the early 19th century, I thought I would compose a few thoughts about its history and geography before posting a review.
I’ve already discussed her bleak but beautiful short story collection called Orsinian Tales, in which a series of vignettes detailing lives lived during a thousand years of Orsinian history gives us a flavour of this fictional nation somewhere east of central Europe. Referenced as Orciny in China Miéville’s fantasy The City and the City, Le Guin’s landlocked country is the sort of polity that may well have existed in Europe’s chequered history which — not unlike Miéville’s twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma somewhere at the edge of Europe — seems to have slipped out of most Europeans’ consciousness.
Now may be a good time to set the scene for what we may expect in a review of Malafrena, and for that we need maps and a bit of historical context.
Unlike England, for example, which seems to have achieved a sense of nationhood in the years up to the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, much of Europe remained a patchwork of small independent kingdoms, duchies and disputed territories right through to the 20th century. While France and Spain gradually consolidated their respective mosaics into now more or less recognisable nations, Italy, Germany and other polities fragmented and coalesced throughout a millennium, sometimes even disappearing as concepts, until the Treaty of Versailles (1919) rendered of Europe a map very close to the one which exists today.
The reason for such volatile borders is clear from a look at ethnicities in the years leading up to the second world war. Ethnographic sketch maps in a 1936 atlas remind us how peoples with varied languages, traditions and cultures constantly crossed boundaries formed by geography and the flick of a politician’s wrist. Even the last score or more of years reveals previous entities like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia resolving into constituent elements. Into such a hotchpotch of migrating frontiers we can easily imagine Orsinia with its ten provinces being somewhat overlooked by the historian.
Le Guin chose to create a fictional country to set her nineteenth-century epic and, being created from her own imagination, what better to call it than a term derived from her own forename, Ursula? Ultimately originating in the Latin ursus, ‘bear’, Orsinia emerged from her mind formed like a squashed, distorted hexagon. If it looked a bit like Czechia — a country made up of Bohemia and Moravia — that was purely coincidental, but I note that both the capital Krasnoy and the eastern province of Sovena have a similarly squat shape.
Both the Tales and Malafrena range across ten provinces, some named from the principal rivers such as the Molsen, the Soven and the Frailen, others describing their geographical location: the Northern Marches, the Western Marches, Perana, Molsena, Frelana, Kesena, Sovena, Montayna, Sudana and Polana. The Tales each tended to focus on particular provinces or cities, but — as we shall see — Malafrena is mainly set in the provinces stretching in a band across the middle of the country.
Officially some publishers tell us that Orsinia has as ‘near neighbours’ Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania, with Austria also as a given, a state of affairs to which we will attribute elements in the language reminiscent of both Slavic forms and Romance names. But this is a country which is both isolated and yet very aware of a Europe outside its borders: there will be references to Austria obviously, but also to Italy, England, and France, and we will remember that the action in Malafrena takes place a mere decade or so after the defeat of Napoleon, with the events of the French Revolution still vivid in an older generation’s memory.
The novel’s arc actually covers the years between 1825 and 1830. In 1824 Byron had died during the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans, an uprising that was to end successfully in 1830. The novel’s final climax is signalled by news of the July Revolution in France, a movement which brought down the absolutist Bourbon regime in favour of a constitutional monarchy (Eugène Delacroix’s contemporary painting of Liberty leading anti-monarchists over a barricade formed of corpses commemorates this event). Other countries followed suit, including Poland which had its own, ultimately abortive, November uprising against the Russian Empire.
In fact much of Europe, desperate for some form of self-determination, was in turmoil during this period, opposed by conservative forces such as Chancellor Metternich in Austria and Charles X in France, and so it is with Orsinia. But all this is as a background to Le Guin’s epic which is focused largely on a couple of families from estates in the mountainous west of the country, in particular on the young idealist Itale Sorde. Because, as the author emphasised in a 1976 paper “Science Fiction and Mrs Brown”,
The writers’ interest is no longer in the gadget, or the size of the universe, or the laws of robotics, or the destiny of social classes, or anything describable in quantitative, or mechanical, or objective terms. They are not interested in what things do, but in how things are. Their subject is the subject, that which cannot be other than subject: ourselves. Human beings.
UKLG was talking about the appearance of somebody like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Brown in contemporary science fiction, but in the context of a romance about social unrest in a fictional country the same approach applies: human beings and particular individuals are what must be our focus, the worldbuilding a canvas on which we seek the figures to engage us and maybe relate to.
A review will follow in due course, but I would like to return to the worldbuilding afterwards because this pseudocartography has to have a feeling of verisimilitude if we are to believe that characters inhabit a real world and that they aren’t just marionettes playing against flimsy painted scenery. And it now also occurs to me that a landlocked country — “my shoreless kingdom” is its description by Orsinian poet Amadey Estenskar — must have been a perfect antidote to the island archipelago that was Earthsea.
* John Bartholomew, The Comparative Atlas Of Physical And Political Geography. Meiklejohn & Son Limited, 1936.
* Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Science Fiction and Mrs Brown’ in Peter Nicholls (editor), Explorations of the Marvellous: The science and the fiction in science fiction. Fontana Science Fiction, 1978. First published as Science Fiction at Large by Victor Gollancz, 1976.
— Orsinian Tales. Panther Books, 1976.
— Malafrena. Panther Books, 1981 (1979).