The level of lameness I reach when trying to come up with pun-y headlines… You’re welcome! Of course the above statement is just to lure you in to another Le Guin centered review on this blog, but this time we won’t go for a novel, instead we’ll have a look at her short story The Day Before the Revolution, which is connected to her novel The Dispossessed which was published in the same year (1974) and is set in part on the same planet, cause both of the stories are connected to her larger Hainish-Universe. In case you have no clue what I am talking about: shame on you! So much for not alienating readers. (But really, it’s just a short short story. Go pick it up, read it real quick, and come back here for the review! See you in a sec!)
In The Day Before The Revolution (which won a Nebula Award in 74 for Best Short Story) we meet up with Laia Asieo Odo, an elderly woman that we previously encountered as a historical figure in The Dispossessed. Odonians, as they call themselves, derive their ideological foundation from the writings of Odo, who is referred to here in this story – unsurprisingly if you think about it, which we of course did not – as Laia, since it is her given name. And good old Ms Odo has a history of writing influential works on anarchism and anarchist society, since she’s been fighting for ending the oppression of those belonging to the working class (and underclass) on the planet of Urras. Her ideas and ideals, written down partially in prison where she spent years of her life have a distinctively communist touch to me (and I guess others), but it is anarchism, because it is an ideology that rejects any form of state, rule, authority, and hierarchies. In The Dispossessed we see that the ideal and the reality may very well clash, but in this story there she is: the woman who thought it all through, wrote it down, started revolutions and became an icon. She lives in a community-organized house (which used to be a bank, something that gives her satisfaction) and deals with age – remarking also, that the older she gets the less easy she finds it to adhere to all the principles and ideals she’s written about so famously.
We follow her through one day. She wakes up and gets up, dresses, has breakfast, reads, remembers, contemplates, meets guests and goes out in the streets on a sudden urge, and ultimately returns, exhausted.
Because The Dispossessed is such a thoroughly political and also theoretical novel in many ways, it is fascinating to witness this other take on Urras and anarchism (I read it before The Dispossessed which didn’t diminish neither novel nor story, it rather enriched my reading of the novel), where we meet the principal thinker of the movement and encounter a brief narrative about old age. How Laia struggles with her own body, its faltering functionality, and also its ugliness, because she does not find herself pretty or attractive anymore. But she is no fool: Her appetite for sex is nothing she denies. In fact she’d love to have her young and attractive secretary look at her the way he’d look at an attractive woman these days, and finds her wishes to be in vain.
Living where she lives and meeting whom she meets she also sees the discrepancy between her writings, the celebration of her principles, and how reality plays out differently. Even though she spoke out against hierarchies and authority, people see her as an icon and treat her as one. And even though she perceives of this ideological gap she is also quite happy with the comfort it provides her with in her old age.
The Day Before The Revolution is first and foremost a story about old age and the end of one’s own life. Laia/Odo has lived her life fully, we could say. She has known oppression and a precarious existence, but she has also known resistance, protest, further repression and the strength to survive it. And she has known love. And loss, and grief. In between the events of the day we witness there are brief flashes of memory, when she remembers her time in prison and her deceased husband Taviri. And even though these glimpses are short, they are profound, bittersweet and melancholic, but also realistic. What is over is over, so what can you do? Le Guin is a supberb writer in many ways. Big shocking confession right here: I read it in German, not in English, translated by Gisela Stege. While I love Le Guin’s prose in the original, this translation reads beautifully and doesn’t diminish the effect. Le Guin’s art shines through: she is able to draw a character with a few lines and strokes, but round and full, because Laia here is believable in her insecurity and confidence, in her longing and acceptance, in her stubbornness and open mind.
Having made it back to the house she walks up to her room, slowly, dead tired, feeling the stroke coming. She will not survive this night. But we already know that the next day all hell will break lose, the revolution based on her influential thoughts will take off and lead to the settlement of another planet. But you don’t need to know about your own future glory to be a grand person.
Still haven’t read it? You gotta be kiddin’ me! Do so now!