Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vivid picture of Estonia during war, dictatorship

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By Sofi Oksanen

Translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers

Grove Press/Black Cat, 400 pages, $18.50

LIFE in Estonia under Soviet rule is dramatically portrayed in this award-winning Finnish novel, newly translated to English.

Author Sofi Oksanen paints a vivid picture of the landscape and people of Estonia. She deftly interweaves universal themes of love, isolation, political instability and human trafficking, involving the reader from the beginning to the surprising ending.

She does not shrink from depicting rape, torture or murder. But she includes tender moments as well, giving a human face to historical facts.

From 1936 to 1992 Estonia was first dominated by Germany, then the Soviet Union, and finally was under its own political system after the Soviet collapse.

Oksanen's characters survive the Second World War and then lived under harsh Soviet treatment. Even in the 1990s under their own Estonian government, they live in fear and display dark, depressed mannerisms. Aliide Truu, an elderly Estonian peasant, is a woman with a complicated past, now socially isolated and suspicious of outsiders. It is 1992 when Aliide finds a 20-something girl collapsed in her farmyard. She takes her inside, despite misgivings of not knowing the girl's past.

The girl, Zara, is a Russian from Vladivostok, the city where Aliide's sister Ingel and her niece Linda were banished many years earlier. Zara realizes Aliide is her great-aunt, but she is traumatized by her work in the sex trade in Germany. She is escaping a sadistic employer so she does not explain all to Aliide.

Through a series of flashbacks in the short chapters, readers slowly understand Aliide. She is in love with and helps hide her brother-in-law, Hans, from the authorities.

He in turn ignores Aliide and remains devoted to his wife and daughter, Aliide's older sister and niece.

Hans is an Estonian partisan, fighting for freedom for his country and dreaming of the day when the West will send military might to defeat the Soviets, a dream never realized.

Aliide marries Martin, an older boorish Russian. He likes her, but her reason for marrying him is to save herself and to be able to live on the family farm for the rest of her life. They have a daughter, Talvi, who Martin loves and raises with very little help from Aliide.

She concentrates on work for the commune and tends the farm animals, largely ignoring her husband and daughter. In adulthood, after her father's death, Talvi has married a Finn and lives in Finland, rarely visiting her mother.

Oksanen, 33, herself is of Estonian and Finnish descent. Although she was raised in Finland, her love of Estonia's land and people is evident. The reader can nearly smell the farmlands, hear the birds and see the plants and animals grow.

Oksanen first wrote Purge as a play. Perhaps its beginnings account for the short chapters and quick shift of time and place, as if scenes in a drama.

The novel was first published in Finland in 2008. It won two of Finland's literary prizes, the Finlandia Award and the Runeberg. It will be given the Nordic Council Literary Prize 2010 in November.

Several Finnish reviewers were impressed with Oksanen's lyrical, poetic style. This style is not as apparent in the English version by American translator Lola Rogers. Nonetheless, her frank, short sentences bore to the "truth" in a direct style that her characters are unable to use.

A recently retired professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba, Carol Hussa Harvey has Finnish ancestors, has lived in Finland and has visited Estonia.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2010 H8

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