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#15 Purging in Estonia

Purge
By Sofi Oksanen (translated by Lola Rogers)
Atlantic Books, 2010

Finlandia Prize 2008; Runeberg Prize, 2009; Nordic Council for Literature Prize 2010; Prix Femina, 2010

General reading value: 5/5
Armchair travel value: 3.5/5

Fly-by summary: The lives of two women – one old, one young – each with their own terrible secrets suddenly intersect causing both to confront the past, present and future. But is their meeting an accident?

Why this book? Had not heard anything about this book before I discovered it in a bookstore and loved the look of the cover.

Take the full tour: If I was to sum Purge up in one word it would be brutal. It is not so much that the descriptions of violence in the novel are overly graphic – although at times they are, rather the brutality lies in the complete absence of empathy and compassion that pervades this text. This is such a damning description of what humans are capable of doing to each other, not only as enemies within a war but also between members of a family, that at times you feel you are being emotionally battered by the story. At once, it is so compelling that you can’t extract yourself from it yet at the same time it is completely disturbing and when I finished it I felt it was the first time since I began reading that I could breathe easily again.

Sofi Okanen, author of Purge (source: wikipedia)

Ok, so my melodramatic intro aside, what is Purge all about? I will have to tread carefully in answering that question as I don’t want to spoil what is an intensely gripping read. The book opens in Laanemaa, Estonia, 1992 at the house of an elderly woman named Aliide Truu. Livng an almost hermit-like existence with which she is quite content, Aliide is let’s say unsettled to discover the bruised and dishevelled body of a young woman beneath a tree in her yard. The girl is heavily made up and dressed expensively…is she Estonian? Soviet? Finnish? Her nationality is one of the more minor of her striking secrets to unfold…

Aliide helps the girl into her home, bathes and feeds her and, on the girl’s request though being somewhat surprised by this, Aliide burns the girl’s clothes and dresses her in some of her own. The girl’s name is Zara and much of the first part of the novel involves a rather claustrophobic description of the pair’s attempts to discover as much about the other as possible while sharing nothing of their own lives.

Estonian Poet Paul-Eerik Rummo who is quoted at the beginning of each part of Purge (source: wikipedia

We, however, discover that Zara is a sex worker who was under the bestial control and instruction of the Russian mafia and from whom she has escaped but is being hunted. We also learn that she previously lived in Vladivostok in the Russian Federation with her mother and grandmother and for some reason their bags were always packed: “they (her mother and grandmother) said in case of fire”.

As for Aliide, we learn that she suffers daily taunts from local children who throw rocks at her home, graffiti her door, and, in the past, have poisoned her dog and chickens and burned down her sauna.

Finally, we learn that Zara has a photo in her pocket of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister and written on the back is “For Aliide Truu, from her sister”. Thus, the arrival of Zara on Aliide’s doorstep is anything but an accident…

The second part of the novel covers Aliide’s history beginning when she was a young woman in the ’30s and her only, albeit significant, concern is that the man she loves has fallen for her sister. Hans, the object of her affection, eventually marries Aliide’s sister Ingel and moves in with the family, later bringing a child into the mix with the birth of their daughter Linda.  Ingel and Han’s immense love for one another creates intense suffering for Aliide but all of their lives are thrown into turmoil when World War II breaks out and the Soviets occupy Estonia bringing a regime of terror that includes deportations, murders, tortures and sexual abuse. Aliide and Ingel are themselves subjected to acts of sexual depravity that are no less discomforting by the implied way in which Oksanen alludes to them.

Laanemaa, Estonia where much of the plot is set (source: wikipedia)

From this point on, it would be too much of a spoiler if I continued to outline the plot but to summarise, both Aliide and Zara’s stories are examples of what people will do in order to survive chaos, cruelty and shame. As I foreshadowed in the introduction, not even the ties of kinship are strong enough to withstand the animal instincts that emerge in these women when they have been pushed to a point beyond which they no longer have anything to lose. I struggled with my reaction to Aliide at times, particularly in the way she allows her obsession with Hans -which will clearly never be requited – to justify her lack of regard for the lives of her own sister and niece; but as I have said, this is not a story about love but rather a story about survival.

I found Purge absolutely mesmerising and very reluctantly reached the last page after being unable to put it down since I began it. I look forward to future publications by this author. I also learnt some interesting and quirky facts about Estonia e.g. they eat boiled pig’s ears , drink mushroom tea and put horseradish in their pickles. It also broadened my knowledge about the experience of Estonians during the Soviet Occupation, about which I knew very little, and also exposed the ongoing debasement of women that is occurring through the sex trafficking industry today. It is horrifying to think that two female characters can be bonded by their own individual experiences of sexual torture and humiliation despite a chasm of fifty years between them – a shocking indictment of the lack of humanity that can continue to exist in parts of the world. The opening quote of Purge is “There is an answer for everything if only one knew the question” and I can’t think of a better way of summing up this reading experience.

Next time I’ll be blogging about my first graphic novel experience reading Persepolis which is set in Iran.

The Literary Nomad xx

More on Estonia


Capital: Tallinn

Population: 1,340,021

Area: 45,228 km2

Language: Estonian

Religion: Mostly irreligious but Evangelical Lutheranism is the most popular.

Currency: Euro

Delay your stay: The Czar’s Madman by Jaan Kross (and other title by this author); The Christening by Denise Neuhaus, Foreign Parts by Sarah Grazebrook; Things in the Night by Mati Unt; The Beauty of History by Vivi Luik; Between Each Breath by Adam Thorp.

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens