My most recent review is of the new English translation of Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. I saw Ms. Oksanen speak at the recent PEN festival, and not only is she an eloquent speaker, she is also able–quite elegantly–to take topics and historical subject matter that is perhaps unfamiliar to her audience (such as the Soviet occupation of Estonia) and make them seem accessible and relevant in a broader context.
This is certainly a knack which she utilized in Purge, but also one which seems to have characterized her previous work. For example, she talked about one of her previous novels, Stalin’s Cows, which deals not only Soviet history, but also the topic of eating disorders. One of her goals, she said, was to create a book in which both of these topics could be brought to readers who might not ordinarily come across them. As she said, she wanted younger girls with an interest in eating disorders to gain an understanding of recent historical events, and older men with an interest in history to gain insight into eating disorders.
In regards to Purge, Oksanen discussed a number of interesting elements, not the least the fact that she drew inspiration for the story from events she heard her grandparents discussing while visiting them in Estonia during her childhood summers. Additionally, the story has gone through many iterations, and Oksanen not only experimented with telling it from different points of view, but also initially wrote it as a play, which was staged in Finland several years ago.
Purge is a difficult novel, but entirely compelling and beautifully, engagingly written. The translation, by Lola Rogers, is fluid and lyrical, and reads quite naturally. My review was published for The L and can be read on their website, or the full text is below.
In 2009, Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen was declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year”in recognition of her virtuosic novel Purge. The novel—whose Finnish title also connotes “cleansing—is a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia and a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual. Through her inscrutable protagonist Aliide Truu, Oksanen creates a perceptive portrait of the limitations of the healing process and the consequences that abuse can have not only on a victim, but on those around her.
Having always lived in rural Estonia, elderly Aliide has weathered multiple occupations—two under Soviet regimes, and one under Nazi Germany. After a brutal “interrogation”by Soviet soldiers in her youth, Aliide is determined to prevent a repeat assault. In an effort to protect herself, however, she becomes complicit in the victimization of other women—even her sister and niece. Like the anonymous diarist of A Woman in Berlin, Aliide seeks safety with her assailants, going so far as to marry a prominent soldier. “No one would believe that a woman could go through something like that and then marry a Communist,”she reasons.” And that was important—that no one would ever know.
It is this oppressive silence which comes to define Purge and strikes at the prolonged anguish felt by so many of its characters. In fluid and unadorned prose (beautifully translated by Lola Rogers), Oksanen gives poetic shape to unspeakable violence and illuminates the devastating process of remembering. It’s a compelling, difficult, and ultimately impossible resolution. Because as Oksanen herself has noted, it is only after one can speak about trauma that one can heal from it.
For Americans who are accustomed to exploring their most intimate sufferings in public, the burden of silence may not immediately resonate. But for Estonians, who only regained independence from Russia in 1991, surely the unabashed eloquence of Oksanen’s narrative marks an important step toward reconciliation with a past that has been silenced for too long.