The Reader’s Gazetteer: O

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I’ve been reading a lot of travel writing lately, as well as novels set in places that are quite a way away from where I am. Most of it’s several decades old: I’m finding it quite reassuring, in a contrary kind of way, to read about places that wouldn’t be there any more, or wouldn’t be the same, even if I could get to them. When I went to Vienna, it was nothing like the way Eva Ibbotson describes it (though I was in a dreadful mood, and should probably go back there and stay longer). At the moment my bedtime book is My Family and Other Animals. Was Corfu ever the way Durrell describes it? I’m sure it isn’t now. I’m not in the mood for Bill Bryson, though I might move on to Paul Theroux. The exception is the latest edition of Hidden Europe magazine, which describes travel only a few months old, trips that I might replicate some day.

Anyway, here’s another place we can’t get to.

Orsinia is the setting for Ursula K. Le Guin’s Malafrena, and the supplemental Orsinian Tales. Le Guin had such a wide range that it seems meaningless to say, this isn’t what you’d normally expect from her. What I mean is, this isn’t sci-fi or fantasy: it’s a historical novel. It’s a portrait of the same doomed idealism as Les Misérables, and a fierce love of home.

In actual fact I read Orsinian Tales first, and might almost recommend that others do that too. Malafrena is very immersive, locked into the events and attitudes of one particular point in history. Orsinian Tales roves several centuries in either direction, across several social classes, and, I suppose, genres.

Orsinia breaks one of the ground rules of this blog series, in that it’s difficult to triangulate its geographical location. Some people on the internet seem pretty sure it’s meant to be on top of Hungary, others, (what would have been at the time of writing) Czechoslovakia. Personally, I think of it as being Slovenia. There’s a story in Orsinian Tales that’s set on the karst, which in my head is a Slovenian thing.

But I’m short on places beginning with O, and what Le Guin does do is tie it very firmly into European history. The events of Malafrena are informed, driven almost, by the country’s relationship with the Austrian empire. The first story in Orsinian Tales is actually set in Paris, during the Cold War, and follows an Orsinian’s decision to defect. The next one jumps back eight hundred years, to the uneasy introduction of Christianity, in a locality that’s recognisable, or will become recognisable, from Malafrena. The internal consistency of Orsinia feels trustworthy, and its external relationship with the Europe we know is plausible, and really, once you’re over the border, why worry?

Across one night of March the wind from the frozen eastern plains dropped and a humid wind rose up from the south. The rain turned warm and large. In the morning weeds were pushing up between the stones of the courtyard, the city’s fountains ran full and noisy, voices carried further down the streets, the sky was dotted with small bluish clouds. That night Lisha and Givan followed one of the Rákava lovers’ walks, out through the East Gate to the ruins of a guard tower; and there in the cold and starlight he asked her to marry him. She looked out to the great falling darkness of the Hill and plains, and back to the lights of the city half hidden by the broken outer wall.

Or, in another story,

The road led east from Krasnoy through farmlands and past villages to a grey-walled town over which rose the fortress-like tower of an old church. The villages and the town were on maps and he had seen them once from the train: Raskofiu, Ranne, Malenne, Sorg: they were real places, none over fifty miles from the city. But in his mind he walked to them on foot and it was long ago, early in the last century, perhaps, for there were no cars on the road nor even railroad crossings. He walked along in rain or sunlight on the country road towards Sorg where at evening he would rest. He would go to an inn down the street from the stout six-sided tower of the church.

And here’s Itale, the hero of Malafrena:

The road led up and over one of the long, low rises of land that made up the immense level of the plain. So gradual was the ascent that slope and summit were all one. Itale stopped and looked back. Aisnar lay five or six miles away, made entire by distance, tile roofs red in the declining light, the calm towers of the cathedral rising above blue shadow. Near where he stood was the ruin of a hut, a few stones and rain-rotted planks. He sat down there on what had been a doorstep or a hearthstone, between the city and the sun. The blowing of the country wind had finally blown his thoughts away.

I have many more pages bookmarked, but I think perhaps I’d better stop there, and really, all of them show the same thing. There’s history in the geography, and geography in the history, and stories in both of them.

Books mentioned in this post

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin

Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. Le Guin

 

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