Reading Round the World: E is for Estonia

PURGE by Sofi Oksanen

Moving back and forth through time, Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen’s novel covers the turbulent years in which her country was a pawn in the political power games between Germany and Soviet Russia.

The title refers to Stalin’s purges, of those Estonians deemed to have collaborated with the Germans during the war. One of the sisters at the center of the story is Ingel, who is sent to Siberia because of her marriage to “freedom fighter” Hans Pekk. Her refusal to betray him. Living in the same house is Hans (hidden safely away) and her sister Aliide. Aliide has chosen to marry a minor communist official, Martin. In this way, she has come to an ‘arrangement’ to protect her freedom. She also has always had a secret love for Hans. She makes a different choice than Ingel.

Oksanen is actually Finnish, but of Finnish-Estonian descent. And since the novel spans sixty years of Estonian history, Purge qualifies as Estonian historical fiction. It’s funny how there was a crow motif prevalent in the last book I read, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin. Coincidentally, here too that is the case. One chapter is entitled “Granny Creel’s Crows Go Silent”. Granny Kreel is the village mystic, purveyor of potions and medicines. Aliide visits her to get some magic help in the pursuit of her love for Hans.

…a nearby crow stared at them. Aliide was afraid of it; as a child they’d been frightened by stories of people turned into crows. There had been a flock of cawing crows in Granny keel’s yard the first time she came there…

Granny Creel asks Aliide if she has “heard what the crows are saying”

But the novel is not only about the lives of people buffeted about by war and ideologies. What happens in times of lawlessnes in peacetime? As a contrast to Aliide’s story, there is Zara – a woman ensnared into white slavery and prostitution by Russian gangsters. The stories of Zara and Aliide parallel for a time, but they come together, if improbably, when Zara escapes her captors and finds her way to Aliide’s doorstep. Understanding that Zara also has faced the worst of what life has to offer, as has she, she is shown the way to redemption, forgiveness, and humility. Each generation has its demons to exorcise, its terrors to absorb.

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 rotted away, but certain things repeated themselves.

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