Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena (1979)
When I was a fantasy-loving preteen, I bought the paperback copy of Orsinian Tales by Ursula K. Le Guin. It looked just like my copies of the Earthsea trilogy and The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and I expected to find more magical and otherworldly journeys within its pages.
Instead, I discovered a collection of realistic stories about a made-up country, set in the depressing region of Eastern Europe, with never a wand or a wizard in sight. I didn’t get very far before tossing it aside in disappointment and some disgust. Orsinia, I thought, was not a place I would ever want to go to again.
Many decades later, I reconsidered when Library of America started to bring out their UKL volumes, beginning with The Complete Orsinia (which adds the novel Malafrena to the story collection and a few poems). I bought a copy, but didn’t feel moved to read it yet. So it’s been sitting on my shelf until now.
Perhaps prompted by my reading of Danubia, which showed me how weird and wild the history of Eastern Europe has really been, I was finally inspired to crack it open this month. And this time, the magic was there — not to be found in exciting sorcerous battles with evil enchanters, but in an honest and penetrating look at the battles of the human heart.
Malafrena is a convincingly realistic story. Her imagined country fits perfectly into our own world, in geography, in culture, in political structure, and in the stream of history, just like Romania or Bulgaria — except that it never existed. It centers around a young man, Itale Sorde, who becomes caught up in a movement for national liberation in the first part of the nineteenth century, a movement that (as in other real-life countries) is brutally crushed. And its dominating motives, its recurring themes, are love and freedom. What is true freedom? How do we achieve it? And how does it fruitfully interact with that union which is love?
Le Guin does not take a simplistic approach, blasting us with emotional fervor as some novelists do when dealing with these questions (Victor Hugo springs to mind). She puts her characters into play, and with compassionate detachment lets us observe them, their struggles and hopes and failures, their omissions and missed opportunities along with their rare epiphanies. She leaves much to be read between the lines; her messages are subtle rather than overt. It takes some work, some degree of maturity to read, and I’m not at all surprised that I was not ready for it yet as a child.
But what I draw from it now is that “the necessary passion” for change to come about manifests not in public histrionics and grand gestures, but in less obvious ways, in the painful choices we make every day as we strive to ground ourselves in love rather than power-hungry possessiveness. Itale has two women who love him, and their trials of the heart complement his outer strivings. Le Guin’s complex insight into this double journey is what gives Malafrena a twentieth-century perspective, transforming what could otherwise have been a hollow nineteenth-century pastiche. It reminds us of the values and the goals that we still need to strive for, as events in the news each day make clear.
The novel ends with failure and loss, at least in outer appearance. But in this bleak place there is a spark of hope, kept alive by the women who in that era were outwardly so powerless. To meet defeat without being broken, to come through suffering alive, and to conceive being out of nothingness — these are the feminine capacities which are so needed in our age of toxic masculinity, and to which Le Guin repeatedly points us in all her work.
Once more, I was confirmed in my conviction that here is one of our wisest, most important, and most artistically adept writers in the English language, and that she has been robbed of her deserved acclaim by being pigeonholed as a genre writer. One can only hope that the LOA volumes may belatedly help to give her some of her due. I’m doing my part to overcome my own prejudices, and read her with gratitude for all she has to teach me.
“We have something to say, and we haven’t said it yet. We stammer. We try to learn to speak, like infants. We don’t know how. We say a little of what we have to say sometimes, in different languages, in a painting, in a prayer, in an act of knowledge. Every so often we learn a new bit of it, a new word. The newest word is the word Freedom. Maybe it’s no more than a new way of saying one of the old words. I don’t think so. It’s new. Still we’re a long way from being able to say the whole thing yet. But we must learn the new words, all of us, we must all be able to speak them. They’re no good if you don’t say them aloud …”from Malafrena