Sofi Oksanen, 2008, Utrensning (Purge, 2010)
I wish I’d written this book. It kicks ass. There’s so much pent-up rage in Oksanen’s book. So much secrecy, so many lies. It’s so political. What’s more, it cuts so close to my roots. I grew up next door, across the bay, in Finland. Which makes me wonder if humans are genetically programmed to see only what we want to see.
I watched a video of a peace and reconciliation meeting in Timor Leste some time ago, where a formidable Indonesian female peace activist apologised to the Timorese people for the Indonesian people not speaking up against the atrocities, for not being there to help their neighbours. ‘Because,’ she said, ‘we didn’t know.’ It was moving to watch her sincerity and her hurt. How many of us can, in this day and age, hand on heart say, I didn’t know?
With regards to Estonia everyone knew all was not well, but just how fucked up life was on the other side of the bay, I’m not sure we understood. There was a residue of occupation, there was the censorship that was part of life in the former Soviet Union. All was not well on our side of the bay either. Growing up in Finland, I had my history textbooks still censored by the Russians. Few of my schoolmates were interested in looking East, most of us were looking West. Finland was probably the most enthusiastic prospect to join the European Union in 1995 because of that legacy. Maybe Estonia was just too close for comfort.
Estonia remained oppressed until very recently. For the Baltic states the war didn’t end with Hiroshima. It was followed by a Soviet occupation, conscious politics of obliterating everything Estonian, every pre-Communist cultural and societal expression. The religious ban extended to banning Christmas. The culture of ‘dob in thy neighbour’ was as rife in Estonia as ever in Stasi East Germany: husband turned against wife, daughter against mother, family against family. Add to that the lure of money and obliviousness of the seedy underbelly of the West – or perhaps a reluctance, not wanting to see? – that turned generations of women into prostitutes and victims of trafficking.
This book is a punch in the gut. It’s a book where women and children draw the short straw, yet they survive. More or less everyone is a victim. It’s a question of degrees, of relativity, both in terms of where they’ve come from and how bad it could have ended. Between happiness and death there’s an awful lot of bruising. So what lifts it out of the danger zone of being too dark and dreary? The way Oksanen brings history to life, and the strong characters, definitely. The only character that comes close to being a tad simplistic is the leader of the trafficking ring. Everyone else is as complex as human beings come. There are glimmers of hope and slender victories along the way. Oksanen weaves in and out of the past and the present, unearths details that add to the spiderweb that ensnares the characters. Everyone carries a secret, absolutely everyone. Family secrets and obsession are at the heart of this story.
I’m interested in the fact that Oksanen writes in Finnish. My copy is a Swedish translation. Perhaps I’ll read Purge again in English, although it feels as though that would make the experience once more removed. Now there is still the linguistic connection, a sense of closeness that tugs at my conscience. I can understand the Estonian words, so similar to Finnish. Occasionally the elegant phrasing is lost, there’s a convoluted sentence, a stumble in the fierce stride of the narrative. I blame it on the translator. How much of the subtext, the voice and tone have been altered? I wonder how it would be to read Nabokov in Russian. What I miss by reading a translation. And how lucky we all are that Nabokov also wrote in English.
I’ve come across a Swedish literary magazine, 00-TAL, with Nordic and Baltic poets translated into English. The English is at times like concrete anchoring delicate words that long to soar. I can’t even translate my own poetry – with every translation it becomes a new poem, adjusting to the sound and the rhythm of another language. Words with double meanings, or subtexts, have to be replaced by remote cousins or risk falling flat to the ground.
I pick up Purge and open the book to read one of the more harrowing scenes. Are the lines still infused with the underlying threads? The ones that trigger particular smells, tastes, memories; the ones that create the authenticity of a text for those who’ve lived through this ordeal? Or have they been, if not lost, then undeniably altered in translation? I read it with a pang of guilt. The guilt of having lived right next door, in a Western country, speaking almost the same language, but not realising the full extent of what was going on right under our noses. This is an important book. It may be called fiction, but everyone knows it’s grounded in fact.