April 2010

Guy Cunningham


Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers

The setup is almost pulp: It is 1992, and an elderly woman in rural Estonia finds a disheveled, bruised Russian girl crumpled on her lawn. The girl claims to be running away from her “husband,” but both the reader and the old woman quickly suspect that she is hiding something. In fact, her “husband” is really a pimp, and the girl is a victim of sex trafficking (along with other traumas).

It’s the kind of lurid subject matter usually associated with a potboiler -- or a movie on basic cable. But Sofi Oksanen’s novel Purge, newly translated into English by Lola Rogers, after garnering acclaim in her native Finland, is too subtle for melodrama. Instead, her narrative quickly branches out to encompass two generations of Estonian history. This is a novel of big issues -- the aforementioned sex industry, the Soviet annexation of Estonia after World War II, the Chernobyl disaster, the tumultuous years immediately after the breakup of the USSR. It’s a lot to take on, but Oksanen manages to keep her focus tight on her two protagonists -- the old woman, Aliide Truu, and the Russian girl, Zara.

Aliide herself sets the tone for the entire novel when she judges Zara to be “a flesh-and-blood person, not some omen from heaven.” While Aliide and Zara’s lives are at the mercy of history, they are allowed to exist as individuals -- not as allegorical types, and not as martyrs. Aliide in particular is very complicated woman.

Much of the book concerns itself with her youth, as the Soviet Union occupies and then incorporates Estonia after the Second World War. Aliide’s sister, Ingel, marries an Estonian nationalist named Hans Pekk -- who soon becomes a wanted man. Together the two sisters hide him in a small, hidden room in their farmhouse. Complicating matters further, Aliide herself is in love with Hans -- though she keeps these feelings private. When Hans goes “missing” however, the Soviet authorities suspect something is up. Instead of applying pressure directly to Ingle, they target Aliide. She is subject to several interrogations. During one such encounter, when Aliide refuses to betray her brother-in-law, she is brutally raped.

After, she worries first and foremost about hiding the assault from her neighbors. The shame of being a victim weighs on her more than even the terror of the attack itself. It even influences her most personal decisions -- most obviously when she decides to marry a local Communist official: “The main thing was that once she married a man like Martin, no one could suggest that something had happened during her interrogation. No one would believe that a woman could go through something like that and then marry a Communist.”

Her silence never breaks, poisoning her relationship with her own daughter, Talvi. By 1992, Talvi has immigrated to Finland, and only visits her mother on rare occasions to hand out “gifts.” The two have never been close, in part because, “Aliide could never tell Talvi her own family’s stories… What kind of person would a child become if she had no stories in common with her mother, no yarns, no jokes?” In that way, Aliide’s assault defines her entire life, because it makes her life story untellable. At times, it even feels as if her life ended that night, and “…the only thing left alive was the shame.”

In 1992, Zara experiences a similar shame. She lives in constant fear that her pimp, Pasha, will expose her prostitution to her mother and boyfriend back in Russia. (He has recorded her working on several occasions.) Zara lacks even the courage to ask for help, sure that Aliide notices that “she (has) a whore’s face and a whore’s gestures.” Like Aliide, she is defined by shame -- even though she was forced into prostitution by Pasha, who lured her out of Russia by promising her a job in Germany, stole her passport, and used violence to keep her in line.

That violence cuts through the political promises made to Estonian women by both the Soviets and the capitalist West. This theme is most obvious when Aliide encounters her assailant in the 1950s, working as a dentist. In the waiting room, “Aliide clung to a copy of Soviet Woman magazine, in which Lenin expressed the opinion that in a capitalist system, a woman was doubly oppressed -- a slave to capital, regular work, and housework.” The bitter contrast between what that magazine promises and what Communism has actually done for Aliide is one of the novel’s most haunting moments.

Not every scene is this perfect. There are times when the sisters’ efforts to hide Hans seem a little strained. When her husband doesn’t turn up, Ingel is deported and her house is given to Aliide. That she manages to keep Hans out of sight from her husband -- in his own home -- might seem a little unlikely for some readers. Overall, though, Oksanen handles a complicated, tricky story with deftness and skill.

Purge is a serious book, but not a dour one. It has a thriller’s air of suspense -- Pasha’s pursuit of Zara is relentless and parts of this novel can easily be read (and enjoyed) as a simple chase. But there is a tragic core to this story that will reward closer attention.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers
Black Cat
ISBN: 0802170773
320 Pages