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Sofi's Choice

Sofi's Choice

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:

Violent Contingencies

Violent Contingencies

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen
Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

I’m a bit more than half way through Sofi Oksanen’s extraordinary novel, Purge, and wanted to jot down a few impressions before doing a complete review later. Ms. Oksanen is a young Finnish-Estonian writer, born in 1977. Purge is her third novel, and grew out of her original play of the same title (“Puhdistus”). Deceptively simple in style and structure, it’s a wonderful example of the power that art has to make us see the universal in the particular. In the details of family life, in the interaction between sisters, in the struggles of one small town, we see the wild swings of history. We see the violent shifts in power alignments. A family drama points us to the drama of time and the chaotic march of humanity.

So far, the book has concentrated primarily on the 30s, 40s, and early 90s. An Estonia ravaged by West and East. Minds ravaged by fateful decisions made generations ago. Oksanen writes with an old soul and directness about a way of life that is quickly disappearing from the planet. Her characters make their own soap, grow most of their own food, can everything in sight, and do this while the world around them is falling apart.

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