Friday, 1 November 2013

Book Review: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11163458-purgeNext stop on my tour of Europe: Estonia. The small country at the Baltic Sea, where the large majority speaks a language cognate to Finnish, seldom appears on international news. Independence of the Soviet Union dates back only to 1991 leaving apart a sovereign interlude between 1920 and 1939. All things considered it can’t be a surprise that most people including me know very little about this member state of the European Union. One of very few novels set in Estonia which I could find and which is available in English is Purge by the Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen. 

Sofi Oksanen was born in Jyväskylä, Finland, in January 1977 to an Estonian mother and a Finnish father. She studied dramaturgy at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki and made her debut as a novelist with Stalinin lehmät (Stalin’s Cows) in 2003 which was followed by Baby Jane two years later. Another two years later the author brought out her first play and then developed it into her third novel, Purge (original Finnish title: Puhdistus), released in 2008 which earned her wide international fame and several important literary awards. Her latest published novel is When the Doves Disappeared (original Finnish title: Kun kyyhkyset katosivat) from 2012. Sofi Oksanen lives in Helsinki, Finland.

Purge is the story of a family living the vicissitudes of European history in the twentieth century. The plot is mainly set in a remote village of Western Estonia and takes place on two time levels, the early 1990s and the 1940s, both eras of drastic change in the Baltic region. The protagonists are Aliide Truu, an Estonian peasant woman in her late sixties, and Zara, a young forced sex worker originating from Vladivostok who after having escaped from her Russian Mafia pimps seeks help and refuge on Aliide Truu’s farm. The elderly woman is suspicious when she finds the seedy girl sleeping under a tree in her yard one morning, but she also has pity. As soon as Aliide wakes up Zara pouring a bucket of water over her, she notices terror and signs of endured torture in her which unleash a flood of memories from the years when the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, World War II and its aftermaths turned upside down Aliide’s and all her family’s life. In order to survive and to avoid more interrogations she married Martin, a fervent and very loyal member of the Communist party, and agreed to denounce her older sister Ingel as well as her seven-year-old niece Linda so they would be deported to Siberia. She also had a still more selfish reason for her betrayal: she wanted Hans Pekk, her brother-in-law, whom she and her sister were hiding from the Soviet officials on the farm all for herself. What Aliide doesn’t know when Zara turns up in her yard is that the girl is the granddaughter of Ingel who taught her Estonian and gave her an old photo with the farm’s address and Aliide’s name on it. But before this secret is revealed both women have to face each one for herself the purge in which they got caught. 

The style in which Sofi Oksanen tells the story of Purge from the point of view of an auctorial narrator is very matter-of-fact although her language is rather poetic (even in German translation) and full of symbols like flies and boots. An interesting peculiarity of the novel is that diary entries of Hans Pekk in hiding interrupt the narrative ever again. For the rest, the narrative jumps often and quickly between the two time levels and background stories of Aliide and Zara. The horrors of Soviet occupation in Estonia (as everywhere else in Stalin’s sphere) and the relentless chase after potential enemies of the Communist cause are depicted truthfully and in accordance with many other accounts of the time. The interrogations which Aliide, Ingel and even Linda had to undergo in the cellars of the local administration building make the violence and cruelty against them felt although torture and rape as part of the established procedure are only hinted at here. In her description of the ways how the two Russian Mafia pimps brought Zara to heel and which mirrors Aliide’s remoter experience of sexual terror the author is more outspoken without ever sounding vulgar as happens so often in similar cases. 

Overall Purge is an excellent read which shows once more that times of war and dictatorial regimes make legalised crime thrive. At any rate, I recommend Purge by Sofi Oksanen and hope that its readers will learn their lesson from it. 

An excerpt from Purge is available here on WORDS without BORDERS:

2 comments:

  1. I saw this on your European Challenge Wrap Up, and of course wanted to check out your review because I also used this for my Estonia book (it looks like we even read it around the same time because even though I reviewed it late, I read it in the beginning of November).
    I really liked your review. One of the things that I found interesting about this novel is that no one really comes off in a good light. For example, it would have been so easy to make Hans seem like a hero because he was part of the resistance to an oppressive regime, but instead of feeling pity for him, I actually disliked him. His sense of optimism and his naive behavior brought a lot of misery on the women in his life and he had no idea because they felt the need to protect him. Certainly, Aliide did a lot of questionable things and yet I didn't feel like he had the right to judge her on many of her decisions because he had no clue what people were facing and what reality looked like at that point.

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    1. Hello Jen! Thanks for your long comment!

      I'm glad that you liked my review. I always fear that all others might see the books I present in a completely different light ;-)

      Yes, the characters in Purge are very true to life and not in the least idealised, something that Sofi Oksanen must have been tempted to do. I think that for us all it's difficult to imagine how it really was to live in such terror regimes. And we shouldn't underestimate nationalism... It's true that Hans appeared rather naive, but then many might have believed that they could drive the Soviets out of the country and that they would get help from the West. For Hans it probably was a question of conscience: should he put up with the new regime, follow and just make the best of it? Or should he fight for his ideals, his national identity? He chose the latter, Aliide was made an obedient and passive supporter of the first. I'm not so sure which of the two alternatives is better - to risk life (your own and inevitably that of others too) or to live a safe life because you're too much afraid to act.

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