Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Library of America, 2016 (originally published in 1976).
Summary: A collection of eleven short stories set in the fictional eastern European country of Orsinia taking place between 1150 and 1965.
This is a lesser-known collection of Ursula K. Le Guin short stories published after her Earth-Sea books, where I first encountered Le Guin many years ago. These are set in an imaginary country, not in another world, but in Eastern Europe in the fictional country of Orsinia. The eleven stories span a period between 1150 and 1965, although not in chronological order.
The first story, The Fountains, suggests the basic theme running through these stories. An Orsinian scientist comes to Paris for a science conference, and takes the opportunity to escape and view the Fountains of Versailles, only to return once more to his hotel and the surveillance of the secret police. This and the other stories chronicle the efforts of people to exert their own freedom against the restrictive circumstances of their lives. A military man excels in his career only to realize he’d sacrificed what and who he’d loved forty years earlier in The Lady of Moge. A clerk with a family longs to be a musician, and despite counsel, determines to keep working on a large composition that will take him years to finish and may not provide any economic benefit. Others seek work that will help them move beyond survival, or love that seems out of reach. In The House, a divorcee comes back to her first husband to re-establish a broken relationship.
The stories pieced together trace the history of this country from a feudal power to an eastern bloc country. Many of the stories portray what seems a relatively dismal life of eking out an existence under some kind of authoritarian regime. The sense of this all was trying to find some glimpse of happiness in a life that is hard and then you die. Characters seem to seek the transcendent in a world where this doesn’t exist.
No doubt these are finely crafted tales. But the disconnected character of the stories, the jumbled chronology, and the bleak outlook of the stories failed to capture my interest. Remembering the Earth-Sea books, The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, I anticipated more. I didn’t find it here.