Book of the month: Sofi Oksanen

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I almost wrote that it has been on my TBR mountain since Lola Rogers’s English translation first came out in 2010, but of course that isn’t the case. Back then, when my reading was limited almost exclusively to the products of anglophone writers, this novel would have passed me by.

Still, it was one of the recommendations I got when I asked the world to give me its book suggestions back in 2012. Nearly seven years later, with the help of a nudge from simonlitton on Twitter, I finally got round to Purge by Sofi Oksanen.

The story starts in 1992 when elderly Estonian villager Aliide Truu finds a bedraggled young woman, Zara, in her yard. Against her better judgement, and in spite of her fear that she could be the victim of a trick, she takes the visitor in. The uneasy interaction that follows initiates a slow unfolding of painful personal and national histories, revealing the loyalties and betrayals that link the two characters and making possible a kind of redemption that they might never have been able to achieve individually.

At its best, Oksanen and Rogers’s writing is powerful and spare. Using details adroitly, the narrative sweeps readers back and forth over decades, delivering some profoundly evocative scenes along the way. There are moments of great poignancy, as when we read about Aliide catching sight of the man she falls in love with, in the instant before he sets eyes on her beautiful older sister.

There is also horror. The description of the way trafficked girls passing out of service become canvases for the aspiring tattoo artist who controls them inks itself onto the imagination. Similarly, Oksanen presents the process by which victims internalise abuse and can grow to hate others who have experienced such violations with memorable clarity.

Often the source of the book’s power lies in Oksanen’s awareness of when to stop writing. The most shocking scene in the novel works by galloping the reader towards its terrible conclusion and then stopping just short of the brutal act towards which it has been racing, like a horse refusing a jump, so that the reader is bucked into the hideous conclusion of the scene alone. Reticence also adds a great deal to the account of the following day, when the traumatised women and Aliide’s young niece return home to eat ‘their pancakes with rubber lips, glass eyes shiny and dry, waxed cloth skin dry and smooth’. By refusing to address what has happened directly, Oksanen conveys the ruination of their domestic peace much more effectively than a frank explanation could do.

This approach also works when it comes to the numerous historical events upon which the narrative touches. The Chernobyl disaster is a good example. Although it is  a relatively small component in the overall narrative arc, Oksanen makes it count by seizing on a few arresting details to bring home its monstrous impact:

‘Later Aliide heard the stories of fields covered in dolomite and trains filled with evacuees, children crying, soldiers driving families from their homes, and strange flakes, strangely glittering, that filled their yards, and children trying to catch them as they fell, and little girls wanting to wear them in their hair for decoration, but then the flakes disappeared, and so did the children’s hair.’

The writing is not always this good. There are some questionable adjectives and places where repetitions feel clumsy (impossible for me to know whether this was the case in the original). There are also a few too many similes that don’t work hard enough to earn their place. In addition, Oksanen (and I’m pretty certain this must be down to her unless Rogers did some substantial rewriting when she translated the novel) has a habit of finishing scenes with a single-sentence detail about an insect or bird on the fringes of the action. It can be very effective, but she uses this device a little too often and by the middle of the book it’s rather wearing.

The structural daring of the book also makes for the occasional wobble. Now and then, cutting back and forth across the decades necessitates the inclusion of some expository passages that jar with the narrative’s usual reticence. In particular, the extracts from the notebook of Aliide’s brother-in-law Hans feel bald to the point of functional a lot of the time.

Issues like this are almost inevitable, however, in books of such ambition. They certainly don’t spoil the ride. This novel is as engrossing as it is important, shedding light on a side of history too often neglected in the English-speaking world. Oksanen should be congratulated for the risks she takes – when they pay off, as they do most of the time, she is hard to beat.

Purge (Puh-distus) by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (Atlantic, 2011)

Picture: ‘Room III Patarei Prison’ by Raimo Papper on

Estonia: the past is another country

The Estonian Literature Centre was one of the first national literature organisations on the web. It launched in 2001, back when Mark Zuckerberg was just starting out at Harvard and tweeting was something only birds did. Judging by my correspondence with it, the organisation is also one of the most efficient of its type: within a few days of my query email, I received a message from Kerti at the centre. She sent me a list of three recommendations and attached the manuscript of a crime novel set in medieval Tallinn, for which the centre is trying to find an English-language publisher.

Tempting though the crime novel was, I decided to go with The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik. This was largely because, from what I could find out, she is one of the country’s most highly acclaimed writers behind Jaan Kross, the Estonian writer most well-known to the rest of the world.

The novel follows a young woman who agrees to pose for a sculptor around the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. With change sweeping across Europe and shivering the Iron Curtain, the woman sees life around her tilting out of alignment as old certainties buckle and the authorities rush to clamp down on underground networks. The sculptor senses it too and is preparing to escape to the West in order to avoid military service, but for his model the events have less tangible and more emotional consequences that send her groping through the past, present and future, trying to locate herself in a world that will never be the same.

This is a book about the power of words – words that forbid, mask and betray, and ‘must be soaked in blood in order to be effective’. With the oppressive Soviet regime necessitating the adoption of a ‘secret language’ for communication about the sculptor’s plans, innocent, everyday terms take on sly, double meanings that mean the heroine ‘can never understand whether the talk is simply of buying butter and cream or of the arrival of fateful news’.

Luik further emphasises the infiltration of terror into daily life through her use of quaint and everyday objects in her imagery: fear ‘flashes like a silver ear-trumpet into which one cannot speak, but only whisper and wheeze’, and ‘glows in naked forty-watt bulbs like an egg’.

In addition, the author’s spiralling of her heroine and her reader through time underlines the interconnectedness of personal and national narratives, revealing how political upheavals change not only the present and the future, but also the way we look at the past. When ‘all ages are flung together’ and ‘years are linked to one another like human vertebrae’, a single shock affects the whole organism.

The blending of myth, memory, past and future has a disorientating effect, which makes the narrative seem to whirl wildly at certain points, flinging the reader into confusion. This was no doubt exacerbated by my ignorance of Estonian political history, which meant that several references that might have provided hand holds slipped through my grasp.

Taken as a whole, though, this was an absorbing and beautiful tribute to the desire for freedom of thought, movement and self-determination. It left me with a powerful impression of what living under occupation might mean and a strange, wistful sense of the secret lives of everyday things.

Thanks, Kerti, for the recommendation – if any English-language publisher is looking for a historical Tallinn crime novel for its list, the Estonian Literature Centre may have just the book.

The Beauty of History (Ajaloo ilu) by Viivi Luik, translated from the Estonian by Hildi Hawkins (Norvil Press, 2007)