Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

This novel moved me especially, because its Estonian setting and characters touched nostalgic chords, bringing back memories of my time in the Baltic states.  Even if I'd never set foot in that part of the world, though, Purge would have knocked me flat. It's bowled over the critics, too, having been translated into 38 languages and winning over a dozen prizes so far.

My comment about nostalgia might suggest that this novel paints a pleasant, picturesque image of Estonia. Quite the opposite: it's almost unrelentingly grim. And lyrically gorgeous at the same time. 

Zara is a young woman, lured from her home in Vladivostok to "the West" by the promise of money. When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she is huddled, with split lips, shattered fingernails, and torn but expensive clothing, beneath a tree. She managed to escape the two Russian mafia goons who were pimping her services to anyone willing to pay for them. She had become just another "Natasha" -- a Russian prostitute, ubiquitous from Vladivostok to Tallinn.    

Aliide is the elderly Estonian woman who finds Zara huddled under the tree in her yard. She is at first tempted to leave the girl there, assuming that she is a decoy for gangs of thieves. Post-Soviet Estonia is a bit disorderly, crime-ridden, and poor. Aliide has her own woes -- she is often tormented by local youths who know of and resent her past as a Soviet collaborator. And so the two women's stories unravel, and in time, we learn that they are in fact related. It wasn't by mere coincidence that Zara appeared under Aliide's tree, but it wasn't for the reasons that Aliide had feared. 

Estonia, like its neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, was batted about like a tennis ball during the years of WWII. The Nazis invaded. Then the Soviets invaded. Some  threw their lots in with one, some joined forces with the other. Always nationalists resisted the foreign control and were ruthlessly persecuted. During the Soviet years, Russians moved in. They married Estonians, had children. They spoke Russian, Estonian, or both. And, all walls having ears, all conversations were overheard and were potentially deadly, leading to brutal interrogations or deportation to Siberia. This was the environment of Aliide's youth. She learned quickly to distrust men in "chrome-tanned boots". No matter what language they spoke, or where they came from. Men in boots are bad news.   

But then came the dissolution of the USSR, and a wild west mentality prevailed. Freedom! For some, yes, for others, no.  The trafficking of Russian and eastern European women became a plague, and Zara's experience gives us an excruciating front-row view of modern slavery. 

I did say that Purge was almost unrelentingly grim. The blessed relief comes from Oksanen's descriptions of the Estonian countryside, of Aliide's various pickles, preserves, teas, and home remedies, of the birch groves and pine forests, wild mushrooms and berries. Even the dripping, dreary Baltic gloom comes across as poetry.
The rainy yard was sniveling gray; the limbs of the birch trees trembled wet...
Aliide quickly recognises that Estonian is not Zara's mother tongue. All sorts of people speak the national language, but for very different reasons, some more benign than others. One must learn to classify non-native speakers as to their risk factor.
The village priest was a Finn who spoke Estonian. He had studied the language when he came here to work, and he knew it well, wrote all his sermons and eulogies in Estonian, and no one even bothered to complain about the shortage of Estonian priests anymore. But this girl's Estonian had a different flavour, something older, yellow and moth-eaten. There was a strange smell of death in it.  
To survive in Soviet Estonia, Aliide learns to trust her uncannily sharp sense of smell and her wits. Trusting other people is out of the question. It's ironic how communism in this instance, in this novel, amplified the drive for self-preservation regardless of the cost to others. 

As I read Purge, I pictured my friend, Natasha, a Russian-Estonian woman a few years older than I. Natasha lived in Tallinn, and I remember her shuffling around her apartment, drinking coffee from a chipped and stained mug, making salads of potato, boiled egg, sour pickles, and whatever else she could pull out of her refrigerator. She had good appliances, because her son had "some Russian business associates" of which we could not speak, and he made sure she had nice things. Natasha sometimes reminisced about the Soviet days, when one could walk home from the factory in the wee hours and not worry about crime. She grumbled about feeling persecuted as a Russian-Estonian. Even at her most cheerful (usually after copious amounts of wine), Natasha exuded a certain sadness. I just heard from a mutual friend in Finland that she has gone to Spain, where the weather is more agreeable and she no longer has to deal with Estonia's political past. I hope she finds some peace and contentment there. In one way, I would like to talk with her about this novel, but in another, I don't know that I have the fortitude. Let Sofi Oksanen tell Zara's and Aliide's stories; let Natasha be in peace. 

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