Sofi Oksanen’s Dark Materials

05/26/2010 3:10 AM |

By Sofi Oksanen. Trans. Lola Rogers

Grove Press

In 2009, Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen was declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year”in recognition of her virtuosic novel Purge. The novel—whose Finnish title also connotes “cleansing—is a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia and a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual. Through her inscrutable protagonist Aliide Truu, Oksanen creates a perceptive portrait of the limitations of the healing process and the consequences that abuse can have not only on a victim, but on those around her.

Having always lived in rural Estonia, elderly Aliide has weathered multiple occupations—two under Soviet regimes, and one under Nazi Germany. After a brutal “interrogation”by Soviet soldiers in her youth, Aliide is determined to prevent a repeat assault. In an effort to protect herself, however, she becomes complicit in the victimization of other women—even her sister and niece. Like the anonymous diarist of A Woman in Berlin, Aliide seeks safety with her assailants, going so far as to marry a prominent soldier. “No one would believe that a woman could go through something like that and then marry a Communist,”she reasons.” And that was important—that no one would ever know.

It is this oppressive silence which comes to define Purge and strikes at the prolonged anguish felt by so many of its characters. In fluid and unadorned prose (beautifully translated by Lola Rogers), Oksanen gives poetic shape to unspeakable violence and illuminates the devastating process of remembering. It’s a compelling, difficult, and ultimately impossible resolution. Because as Oksanen herself has noted, it is only after one can speak about trauma that one can heal from it.

For Americans who are accustomed to exploring their most intimate sufferings in public, the burden of silence may not immediately resonate. But for Estonians, who only regained independence from Russia in 1991, surely the unabashed eloquence of Oksanen’s narrative marks an important step toward reconciliation with a past that has been silenced for too long.