Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reading Notes: The Telling

(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is A favourite author).

Where my guides lead me in kindness
I follow, I follow lightly,
and there are no footprints
in the dust behind us.

The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin (2000) is the story of Sutty, a woman of a future Earth, who travels to Aka, a faraway planet, as an Observer, and is confronted, confused, hurt, but ultimately liberated by what she finds there.

Actually, that's vast over-simplification of this beautiful, strange and alien work of one of my favourite writers of the science fiction / fantasy genre - in fact, one of my favourite writers, full stop. But the thing about Ursula K LeGuin's stories is that the essential plot is almost always bare and simple to the point of austerity. I could adequately summarise the events / action of every one of her books in one Tweet apiece - 140 characters would be ample, in fact.

The depth and power of her work doesn't come from tricky, complex plotting or a vast, crowded stage of major characters chattering their way into the reader's consciousness. Rather, what Le Guin does so amazingly, heart-breakingly well is to tell stories about culture and difference, to use the POV of an outsider or a narrator to build social structures which the reader can also watch but never really join, linked as we are to the outsider consciousness of the main character. Reading Ursula LeGuin is like looking through a cracked glass at a picture of a room that you don't know - some things seem (are intended, I believe, to seem) oddly distorted, weirdly bent, inexplicable, because you are not seeing the whole picture; or rather, not seeing it from within, the way that only a person embedded in their culture can do.

In this, it's hard not to see the influence of both of LeGuin's parents - distinguished anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Brown Kroeber, both famous, among other things, for their work with Ishi, the last of the Yahi Indians. LeGuin's deep, loving familiarity with anthropology is absolutely key to her treatment of alien cultures in all her books. The sense of loss and longing and lack of comprehension that fills Sutty on Aka, the sense that LeGuin conveys so poignantly of the observer coming late to a culture in flux and trying to understand it, is, I think, indubitably the gift of a person who has been steeped in anthropological knowledge.

One of the reasons that this book in particular is a favourite of mine (rather than the better-known The Left Hand of Darkness, or the lovely, lovely Earthsea cycle) is that it weaves Sutty's attempts to understand Old Aka - and what happened to it - into her own personal grief and misery, and her painful, bleak history informs her actions on Aka in a way that I find utterly believable and utterly sad.

Sutty is deeply flawed (aren't all non-obnoxious protagonists?) but she really has suffered and that past, invading the present, is what saves her from being merely shallow and trite in her observations. This is her journey to find, to understand, the now-banned cultural system of belief / living (which she labels, eventually, The Telling, for want of a better term, but she acknowledges, and the reader feels - with frustration - is not really an adequate descriptor). It's also her journey through the darkness of the fundamentalist planet she grew up on, and the crimes - motivated entirely differently, or are they? - committed there.

At the end of the day Sutty picks a side pretty unambiguously - another example of her flawed, fractured personality, in fact, given the distance that is an essential part of her task. The book, to be fair, certainly endorses her choice; it's impossible to get to the end and feel anything positive for New Aka and its suppression of The Telling. But there is nuance here, and understanding, and, much as Sutty herself might hate the phraseology - there is redemption. Sutty sees it herself as a price, an awful price, paid to unshackle the future:

His life, that was what underwrote her bargaining. His life, Pao's life. Those were the intangible, incalculable stakes. The money burned to ashes, the gold thrown away. Footsteps on the air.

1 comment:

  1. I first read Wizard of Earthsea at university, and loved it. I can see exactly what you mean about the outsider trying to understand the culture they have come to. I've since re-read Wizard and two other books, but I have missed out on the 4th book until now.

    I do have a le Guin on my to read list, suggested from my reading of Modjeska's Poppy. it's high on my list for when I have made my way through some of my 1001 book list. I will add some more of her fiction too.

    Thanks for the suggestion, and thank you for linking up :)