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“Purge” by Sofi Oksanen

By Emma Garman

Aliide Truu, the warped murderess and tragic victim at the center of Sofi Oksansen’s astoundingly ambitious novel Purge, is an elderly woman when we meet her in the opening chapter. Living alone in the Estonian countryside in 1992, she has recently witnessed her nation’s liberation from Soviet rule, and is dealing with the challenges of life in a “dying village,” where everyone is moving away, no one comes to visit, and the day is interrupted only by hooligans throwing stones at the window.  But a further repercussion of the USSR’s dramatic collapse—the burgeoning power of the Russian Mafia and its deadly facilitation of sex trafficking—is about to come crashing on her doorstep.

A young girl, bruised, filthy, and terrified, materializes in Aliide’s front yard, lying under a tree. Zara, the reader quickly realizes, is an escaped Russian sex slave on the run from her captors. Not that she explains this to Aliide, who regardless, and against her better judgment, offers Zara shelter and protection, and is surprised to hear her speak an old-fashioned form of Estonian, “older, yellow and moth eaten” with “a strange smell of death in it.” The old woman is even more surprised when Zara produces an ancient photo of Aliide and her sister Ingel: apparently, the girl’s choice of garden to collapse in was anything but random.  But Zara is discouraged from explaining her possession of the photo when Aliide, after first denying that she has a sister, then calls Ingel “a thief and a traitor” who was taken “wherever they take enemies of people.”  

And so Oksanen, having orchestrated a set-up of almost unbearable tension and macabre foreshadowing, unspools her epic story—which meshes a psychologically complex case of fatal attraction with the echoing, brutal impact of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, and ranges kaleidoscopically and enthrallingly across different eras and back again, from Aliide’s pre-Soviet Estonian girlhood in the 1930s, to the Stalinist deportations to Siberian camps in the 1940s, to Zara’s desperate existence as a “Natasha,” trafficked to Berlin from her home in Vladivostok, Russia. Tantalizingly, it is revealed that Zara and Aliide are connected by blood, and that the older woman’s unrequited love for Zara’s grandfather fifty years earlier helped set the wheels in motion for the girl’s current, desperate fate.

Of equal significance: that the two women are connected experientially by their survival of barbarous violation, and their determination to blot out the trauma and purge themselves of the shame. In 1947, when Aliide is raped by Communist interrogators, she tries to dissociate from what’s happening: “The woman with a bag over her head in the middle of the room was a stranger and Aliide was gone…She dove down far away.” Then, much later chronologically but explicitly juxtaposed narratively, Zara thinks about the pornographic films she’s been forced to do, and tells herself to remember that “the video was not Zara’s story but Natasha’s; it would never be Zara’s story. Natasha’s story was on the video. Zara’s was someplace else.”  

“I try to link things,” Oksanen has said, “on a metaphorical or symbolic level, or just by intuition.” She succeeds remarkably: Purge, whose smooth translation by Lola Rogers seems to capture every nuance and subtlety in the text, is particularly striking in its rich use of metaphor, imagery both subliminal and grotesque, and scenarios paralleled across time and space, all cohering to create a read both emotionally harrowing and as riveting as a thriller. Now an international bestseller, Purge—the 33-year-old Finnish-Estonian author’s third novel and the first to be translated into English—is the recipient of multiple awards including, most recently, the Nordic Council Literature Prize. In a gratifying testament to the book’s authority and cogency, when the Estonian translation was launched in the capital Tallinn, police were on alert for fear of reprisals from present-day Communists.

But Purge is not simply a condemnation of the pernicious effects of Soviet Communism’s fallen empire; like a great 19th century novel it is concerned with how political and economic systems compete with and come to bear upon individual human frailties and contingencies, and like a Greek tragedy it weaves a hypnotically propulsive, timelessly resonant tale in which women kill—to avenge, to survive, and, in the case of Aliide’s admirable act in the heart-stopping final scenes, to achieve a long-overdue atonement.  

Published Apr 13, 2010   Copyright 2010 Emma Garman

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