Monday, 23 November 2015

A bridge between times

Full title: Purge
Author: Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 320 pages, paperback
Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There’s a bridge between times. Something to discard, something to remember. But the funny thing is memories we want forgotten return, in the way Freud must have imagined his Uncanny. And when they come they demand that we take them seriously. Very seriously.
This is, in a few sentences, the gist of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, the novel that’s made her known to the whole world, translated into at least 25 languages and made into a topic of discussions from book clubs to academic circles. Purge is divided into hemispheres meant to meet each other at various point, repeatedly. The intertwined stories take place in two different times but converge spatially in one and the same Estonian village, where history is written and rewritten at the same time. On the one hand, there’s this story about the Russian occupation after World War Two, and concentrated between the 1940s and the 1960s, which takes roughly half of the book’s length. The other half is occupied by a narrative set in the time after the fall of the Soviet empire, in the 1990s, when the independence of the former Soviet Republic of Estonia comes with the strings that cannot but attach it to its irrevocable past.
Once this aspect of the setting is agreed upon, in come the characters. Two of them stand out, because it is by means of their stories that the big narrative is carried on. They also stand out because they cross paths in significant ways, running into each other in 1992. On the one hand we have Aliide Truu, an old woman with a history of collaboration with the Soviet regime, as well as a secret big as her entire past. On the other hand, there’s Zara. She’s young, beautiful, and terribly scared. She’s come to Aliide’s house in search for sanctuary, after having just escaped from a life of forced prostitution.
Zara’s motives and background are the true engines of the novel. We find out that she used to live in Vladivostok, in a kolkhoz, along with his mother and grandmother. The two older women had been born in Estonia, in the very village where Zara is now forced to seek protection in the house of Aliide Truu. About Aliide she knows one crucial aspect: that she is her grandmother’s sister. But that is the whole extent of Zara’s knowledge. Her head is full of questions. Why had her grandmother been so laconic about Aliide? Why does Aliide say that she’s never had a sister? What is behind this silence that separates the two old sisters, and why has the grandmother never agreed to come back to the Estonian village of her birth?

Sofi Oksanen. Source: Ilta Sanomant
It is the purpose of the rest of the novel to provide answers to all these questions. All veiled in the mystery brought about by the fact that Aliide has absolutely no idea who this young stranger is, and what she’s doing, collapsed, one morning, in the grass at the back of her village house.
In order for the necessary clarifications to come about, the novel uses the impact of a solid realist plot in which suspense leads the way. That makes for a strong narrative cocktail, which keeps the reader with eyes peeled and assures the page-turning effect pursued throughout the novel. Without going into details, suffice it to say that the secret in Aliide’s past is the element towards which the novel moves, so as to bring light to Zara’s current strife. In the process, Sofi Oksanen produces some powerful pages in which she proves her knack for the horrific and the violent. There’s torture involved, there’s forced prostitution, there’s incarceration and interrogation and powerlessness and escape and inhumanity and loss of hope and regaining of the same. The story shocks and at the same time redeems. Aliide, whose unrequited love forces her to turn into a monster, is paired, in a twisted way, with Zara’s pseudo-love. They are both connected, through invisible threads, by means of this relation that’s erotic and impossibly pornographic at the same time.
Aliide, who has the objective distance of her experience of the two worlds, is able to recognize the repeatability of history. She remembers and relives. The uncanny aspect of her story is given by the fact that history returns as painful as ever, as violent as ever:
“Everything was repeating itself. Even if the ruble had changed to the kroon and there were fewer warplanes flying over her head and the officers’ wives had lowered their voices, even if the loudspeakers on the tower at Pika Hermanni were playing independence songs every day, there would always be chrome-tanned boots, some new boots would arrive, the same or different, but a boot on your neck nevertheless. The foxholes had been closed up, the shell casings in the woods had tarnished, the secret dugouts had collapsed, the fallen had rotten away, but certain things repeated themselves.”
This passage sounds like the last, concluding, movement of a symphony centered on the destiny of an entire nation: the kind of story that has emerged abundantly from all the Eastern-European countries formerly quashed under the communist (Soviet or not) iron curtain.
Sofi Oksanen is half Estonian, half Finnish. But more importantly, she is a writer who writes from the aftertime of the communist catastrophe. You can feel all this in the tone of her stories: informed to the point of becoming overly exact, curious with the curiosity of a tourist who’s there for the first time.

This whirlwind of memories that come and go is not only unsettling. For the main characters, memory is the place where they return to find comfort, where the good things of life had taken place and where, therefore, they want to be again. Aliide’s unrequited love, Zara’s boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen for a number of years. Sometimes, this provocation of the past makes it necessary to look for comfort in a deeper form of existence: a form of becoming-mineral, of becoming so small, so invisible, that one’s physical presence turns into molecules (the utmost invisibility, the ultimate bliss of existence). Zara experiences this in a moment when she wants to hide from the danger that keeps following her.
“She had to close her eyes, deep within the room, to think herself to someplace else, she was a star, an ear on Lenin’s head, the hairs of Lenin’s whiskers, pasteboard whiskers on a pasteboard poster, she was a corner of the frame of the picture, a chipped plaster frame, bent, in a corner of the room. She was chalk dust on the surface of a chalkboard, in the safety of the classroom, she was the wooden tip of a pointer…”
The major difference between Zara and Aliide resides in the fact that the former is a defeated person, one who needs to hide away, one who needs protection; while the latter is a conqueror, a woman who’s been through the most unpleasant forms of life and has managed to come out of everything alive (like a Machiavellic cat of nine lives who always falls on her paws and never breaks a bone).
The previous quote outlines pretty well Zara’s destiny. There’s one that defines Aliide’s too:
“If they’re coming, they might as well all come – Mafia thugs, soldiers – Reds and Whites – Russians, Germans, Estonians – let them come. Aliide would survive. She always had.”
The discourse of a winner, this is, albeit one veiled in a sense of resignation. A bitter discourse, for Aliide’s solutions to her troubles have been on the wrong side of morality; and these troubles have made her stone-like, cynical. This is, therefore, the discourse of a survivor. A survivor like Zara who, half a century after Aliide’s tribulations, succeeds in staying alive when life itself is at odds with her.