In Purge, we have a dark world, fully imagined. We have a brutal world, fully revealed. But Ms. Oksanen does not bring us layer upon layer of meticulous detail to make that happen. Instead, she uses the brush of an impressionist, though her subject matter is closer to an unexpurgated 21st century Film Noir. She is also more direct than those who studied light to see how it changed the world from hour to hour. Hers is not an oblique rendering of the subject at hand. Purge goes for the jugular, for the underside of life, and its gaze is often pitiless.
It fits that she counters the ugliness, sadism and betrayals of the war years and their aftermath with the horrors of Eastern European sex trade cerca 1991-92. She uses tragedy as a fulcrum to show the continuity of cruelty through time. Rape is a motif in both literal and figurative form in both eras. The rape of Estonia, familial relationships, time and Aliide and Zara.
Betrayals. Aliide betrays her sister, Ingel, her niece, Linda, and Ingel’s husband, Hans, and we don’t find out the true extent of that betrayal until the end. It is perhaps the only misstep Oksanen makes in her novel, adding the top secret documents. It is not fatal. The book is still riveting. And lessons are still learned. But the ending changes our sense of what is possible after humans endure extreme cruelty, viciousness and indifference to pain. What does the instinct for “survival” do to humans? What doors does it unlock? Purge also reminds us that there is another world out there, far from the one most of us know. A world we generally only visit in books and movies, through fictional works, from a safe distance. But these kinds of things did happen, and they happen still. War, the collapse of empire, rape, murder, political oppression, violence against women and against all dissent.
Borders. So much is about borders. Geographical borders being crossed against the will of the people. Personal borders being crossed against the will of the individual. Complex, modern systems and societies, under threat from more powerful and more complex entities. Basic nature under threat from other, more aggressive and more powerful natures. Sofi Oksanen reminds us that our hold on sanity and “civilization” can be shattered in an instant, with little chance for a return.
Here’s the author in a recent interview, discussing Purge: