Oksanen: Purge (2008)

Oksanen: PurgeMy mother asked a few weeks ago whether I am interested in a book she recently read. I was, but considering that it was not written in Hungarian I was happy to find that an English translation existed and my local library had a copy of it. This way she didn’t have to send me Sofi Oksanen’s Purge.  I just finished reading it and feel cathartic. (BTW: Did you know that “cathartic” also means purging?)

My mother warned me that the book is brutal at some places. It sure was and not just on the physical level. That part included forced prostitution, rape by investigators, beatings and killings. Similarly violent was–even if the harm to the people’s bodies was less direct–the coverage of forced evacuation from Estonia to Siberia or the aftermath of Chernobyl catastrophe a 1000 kilometers away. Underlying all these were the different, yet similar brutalities of regimes that swept over Estonia, where most of the book takes place.

It’s great novel, not just because the author’s writing style is stunning, but also because it has so many layers. You can read it as a mystery book, trying to figure out the connection between and the history of the protagonists. You can read it as an Estonian history book covering most of the 20th century. You can read it as a testament and witnessing of violence against women. (In this aspect it is similar to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.) It is also a comparison of the brutality of Nazi, Communist and Capitalist (aka Wild West). All of this is summarized in a few lines on page 300:

“If they are coming, they might as well all come–Mafia thugs, soldiers–Reds and Whites–Russian, Germans, Estonians–let them come. Aliide would survive. She always had.”

Then there is the ending. Part five of the book, the last 20 pages, are in the format of a series of “top secret” KGB/NKVD reports. They help to solve the mysteries, but also add unexpected turns to the story, that I didn’t see coming.This ending made the book cathartic. The brutality and inhumanity finally moved from the personal level to the state-organized one, showing the hidden yet very real criminality of the Stalinist system. After I put down the book, I felt I shouldn’t touch anything as it would become unclean. I felt utterly disgusted and a big block was pulling down inmy stomach. This may not sound as an endorsement, but it is. Any book that can have this kind of effect on you, without using low-level gore, is worth reading. It will teach you about yourself too, not just the subject matter.

I suppose I should say a few words about the plot and characters of the book, without revealing too much. It starts off like a David Lynch movie, except the homeowner found a sick girl in her yard and not a detached ear. Slowly we learn the girl’s story: lured from Vladivostok to Germany in the hope of making lots of money so she could go to med school, but then forced to prostitute herself, from which she managed to escape to the aforementioned garden in Estonia. The woman who found her lived all her life in that village. She has fallen in love with her sister’s German-sympathizing boyfriend during WWII. The sister and her daughter gets evacuated to Siberia, while she keeps hiding her brother-in-law even after she marries a card-carrying, true-believer Communist after the war. There is more to it, of course, but I already spoiled too much. Go read it for yourself.

I am looking forward to the author’s next book. It’s not out in English yet, but the Hungarian edition’s title translates to “Stalin’s cows.”

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