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To Tell the Truth

THE TELLING A Novel By Ursula K. Le Guin; Harcourt: 272 pp., $24

September 24, 2000|MORRIE RUVINSKY | Morrie Ruvinsky is the author of the novel "Dreamkeeper."

Ursula K. Le Guin is a liar. One of the very best. She makes things up, takes you to worlds as elusive as dreams and almost as close. "Everything I'm telling you," she said when she received the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award from The Times last year, "is a lie. Even this."

Born and raised in Berkeley 70 years ago, the daughter of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the writer Theodora Kroeber (author of "Ishi"), Le Guin grew up in a rarefied world layered with bountiful stories. She heard her father's retelling of Native American myths and legends, scoured the works of the Celtic revivalist Padraic Colum and lived in the fairy tales of Peter Christian Asbjornsen. Inspired by stories and armed by circumstance, she began writing at age 9. Two years later, when she felt she was ready, she submitted her first piece for publication to Amazing Stories. It was, we should all be relieved to know, rejected.

Since then, however, Le Guin has managed to create one swirling potent universe after another, concocted of nothing but words. Stories. The four books of Earthsea. The Orsinian stories. And of course the much-celebrated Hainish cycle, of which her newest novel, "The Telling," is the long-awaited continuation. In her work, she reminds us again and again that stories are the primary medium for the transfer and sustaining of our personal and cultural being. What genes are to the biology of our existence, stories are to its fabric, and Le Guin is a guide. Just follow the lies.

In 1969, Le Guin published her breakthrough novel (and flagship of the Hainish cycle) "The Left Hand of Darkness," which not only launched her career as a major novelist but also announced quite boldly that she was everywhere that words were in play--literary fiction, poetry, children's books, translations, criticism, theater--and along the way spawned many new storytellers. Thirty years later, "The Left Hand of Darkness" still holds up. The sheer literary power of Le Guin's concerns and style is readily apparent. Her courageous investigation of gender roles was revolutionary, and she was practically alone on the playing field. Enter "The Telling," Le Guin's first new novel in almost a decade.

Imagine a world in some distant galaxy far off in the future. It is plagued by the notion that technological advances necessarily make life better. It is run by an almost flagrantly paranoid government that is so fearful of the free exchange of ideas that it penetrates deep into the private lives of its citizens, regulating everything, making life so busy that there is no time for questions or reflections. Imagine that in this world there are people living outside the mainstream restrictions, trying to preserve old wisdoms and spiritual connections and imagine that they are dismissed as aberrant and dangerous crazies whose only purpose is to plunge the world back into darkness. (Imagine that it is just science fiction and you'll never understand the deliberate, insightful universe in which Le Guin lives and works.)

In "The Telling," Le Guin is at the top of her game. Her vision is clear and her observations precise. Her language, which sings true in every line, is simple and profound and her storytelling is sure--an absolute requisite for a novel in which she has isolated and identified the loss of story as that most profound of all cultural wounds. Lose our stories, she warns, and we lose our selves.

It is into this most injured of worlds that Le Guin sends Sutty, an observer from Earth who has been assigned the task of studying Aka, the planet in the grip of a monolithic State known as the Corporation. Ostensibly an emissary from the Ekumen, the highly advanced consortium of worlds emulated by the Akans, Sutty is on a covert mission to find and record traces of the planet's past. It is a dangerous mission. In the Akan rush to embrace sophisticated technologies and speed their way into the future, they have ruthlessly banned traditional beliefs, outlawing old writings and rituals that might in any way distract people from their newly assigned roles as producer-consumers. The State, then, is the purveyor of secular terrorism. Practices that connect people to their former identities, their spiritual roots and their lost communities are viewed as heretical, and heretics must be removed, if not erased. Some will liken Aka to China during the Cultural Revolution; others will fear it may fall closer to home.

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