by Sofi Oksanen
A review by Larissa Kyzer
Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia's "Person of the Year" in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland's prestigious literary prizes -- the Finlandia and the Runeberg -- as well as winning this year's Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.
The novel opens in 1991 -- the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia -- with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia -- a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother's sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.
Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel's fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word -- their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.
As the novel delves into Aliide's past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident -- a brutal "interrogation" that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged -- even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. "She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them," we're told.
From every trembling hand, she could tell -- there's another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier's shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn't keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn't look you in the eye . . .
When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman's . . . And they wouldn't be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn't be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.
Even as Aliide's attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her -- even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home -- the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions -- much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent "[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar."
Stroke her hair and say that it wasn't her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.
There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption -- in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.
Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide's experiences -- as well as those of her grandmother and mother -- will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward -- in order to truly reconcile with the past -- such stories must finally be heard and examined.
This review was originally posted on Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester.
More Than Three Decades of Quality Writing and Criticism
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. To learn about how to join, click here.