Thursday, October 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: Orsinian Tales

Orsinian Tales
by Ursula Le Guin

This is an intriguing and strong collection of stories. They’re set in a fictional central or eastern European country, and range from the middle ages through to the mid-twentieth century. There’s no overt sf or fantasy element to them, though the way they’re presented has a visionary quality, a hint of something beyond the real. Yet most of the stories are what might be called bourgeois dramas; stories of young people in love, men and women trying to build lives for themselves, a man trying to find a way to escape into art. There are few stories in the collection about wars or treaties or the place of the country in the greater European context. But just by its existence, it situates itself as fantasy.

These paradoxes aside, the stories are largely excellent. Le Guin’s writing is understated and controlled. There’s a kind of impersonal perfection to many of them. Le Guin knows how to use implication, how and when to underwrite, to allow the reader to fill in the blanks. So her fictional lands come alive, her unreal cities have a life and an internal logic and culture to them. Although, that being said, there isn’t much of a sense of how the country interacts with the larger European context; of where its own traditions influence and are influenced by the ideas and arts around it.

Mind you, these stories wouldn’t work at all unless Le Guin had a strong grasp of her country, and of the times through which it lived. She’s able to evoke an era clearly, and create a convincing sense of the times in each story. In a way, this book is a good example of what I would call true post-modernism; an acceptance and revision of the past, a re-writing of what has gone before, suggesting new possibilities, new ways of looking at old accomplishments. And it is, in the final analysis, a considerable accomplishment in itself.

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