Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sofi Oksanen’s Sly Purge

Purge is a sneaky novel in both form and content, thanks to deceitful characters and sly writing from Finnish author Sofi Oksanen. Purge, which Lola Rogers translated from the Finnish original (Puhdistus), takes place primarily in Estonia and uncoils stories of decades of political and family deception. It is suspenseful and rewarding in a slow-build kind of way, and it is very difficult to describe without telling all, so I won’t tell much…

Purge begins when a young Russian woman, Zara, appears in the rural yard of an older Estonian woman, Aliide Truu, in 1992. Aliide, who seems obsessed with killing flies, sees a mound and goes outside to find a young woman with bleached-blond hair lying in her yard, wearing stockings that “didn’t bag at the knees – they were tight-knit, good stockings. Definitely Western. The knit shone in spite of the mud.”

Of course there’s a reason that Zara has shown up in Aliide’s yard, and there’s a reason Aliide is wary of Zara. Oksanen spends the novel revealing their secrets, which all somehow trace back to the political and economic difficulties of the Soviet Union. It seems that everyone in the book is hiding, either literally or figuratively, and Oksanen is the greatest cacher of all, saving crucial details for the end of the book. This is a strategy that often annoys me but, given Oksanen’s characters and topic, I think it works beautifully in Purge.

Purge spans decades – from the 1930s into the 1990s, covering World War 2 and Stalin-era informing – and shows how history repeats itself through violence and false promises of chances to better one’s life. At one point, Aliide thinks of cycles of history and how, no matter who’s in charge, there’s always “a boot on your neck nevertheless.” If you read the book, watch for repetition of names and symbols. Oksanen also creates devastating portraits of the destructive power of sibling rivalry and unrequited love, as well as collaborations born from necessity.

I believe the word “purge” appears only once in the English translation of the book, in a context where it has a literal meaning of cleansing that extends, symbolically, to more psychological and political aspects of the life and identity of the character, as well as societies. And that’s all I’ll reveal about the novel. I recommend Purge to readers who enjoy psychological novels and/or are interested in Estonia, the Stalin era, or the consequences of personal or political tyranny. Purge has some brutal passages.

A bit of background on Purge from Oksanen’s Web site: “Puhdistus became a runaway success, and Sofi Oksanen’s major breakthrough: a No. 1 bestseller in Finland with sales exceeding 140 000 copies, Puhdistus has won its author numerous literary prizes, including Finland’s premier literary award, The Finlandia Award, and biggest literary award in Nordic countries, Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010.”

Many thanks to the people who have shared Purge: blogger Amy Henry of The Black Sheep Dances, who received a copy of Purge from Black Cat & Grove/Atlantic then passed it on to our mutual Goodreads friend, who sent it to me. Thank you to all. Amy’s post about Purge, which provides only sparse detail, is here. If you’re interested in more about the book, here’s Jacob Silverman’s positive review from The New Republic online.

Fly photo credit: acscom via

Disclosures: I received a copy of Purge (albeit third-hand!) from the publisher. I have discussed Russian literature in translation with Grove/Atlantic.

No comments:

Post a Comment