Country Focus: Estonia (Eesti in Estonian)
Translated by Lola Rogers
Originally published as Puhdistus in Finland, 2008.
My edition: Black Cat, 2010. 389 pgs.
Acclaim: International Bestseller; Winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize; Winner of the Finlandia Award
This suspenseful, well-crafted novel begins with an Estonian man’s desperate and mysterious journal entry from 1949. He writes that he is in hiding and annoyed with a woman named Liide, concerned for his country’s fate, and utterly dismayed that he does not know where his “girls” are.
Fast forward to 1992 Estonia: an old woman, Aliide, spots a pitiful figure collapsed under a tree in her front yard. Aliide revives the confused and frightened young woman, who tells Aliide that her name is Zara and that she is on the run from her violent husband.
Zara is lying. She is not married. She has just escaped from the men who had forced her into a life of prostitution. Nor has Zara just “happened” to wind up at Aliide’s door; she carries a photo of Aliide that was given to her by her grandmother.
Aliide is an Estonian Martha Stewart, busy canning ripe tomatoes and raspberries and drawing up batches of herbal medicines. But like Zara (and Stewart), she has her share of secrets. Oksanen plagues Aliide with a constant stream of flies – her hint to the reader that there’s something rotten in this organic paradise.
Oksanen expertly weaves both women’s pasts and the present, revealing Aliide’s and Zara’s sordid backstories little by little. Zara is a good person stuck in a bad situation, and Oksanen builds empathy for her by explicitly and unflinchingly describing Zara’s nightmarish XXX serfdom. Aliide is a more nebulous and interesting character. Possessed with a survivor’s pragmatism and driven mad with lust for her sister’s husband, Aliide lived through the German and Soviet occupations of Estonia in the 1930s and 40s by betraying both her family and her country.
Whether or not Aliide will prove to be Zara’s ally is never a foregone conclusion. The inhumanity of Zara’s pimps is equally matched with Aliide’s ruthless self-preservation. Through Aliide, Oksanen presents an intriguing look at a woman who endures her country’s subjugation and how the repercussions of this experience affect Aliide’s own humanity.
In my book (or what Estonia means to me and maybe you, too)
Don’t know much about Estonia
Purge was my introduction to Estonia. I had heard of the country and assumed that since it’s located in Russia’s neighborhood it must have been communist at some point. Sofi Oksanen, who is Finnish-Estonian, verifies this assumption in Purge, but also reveals that Estonians did not go gentle down the communist path. The nation finally gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and in January 2011 became the first former Soviet state to adopt the euro.
OK, so Purge is a little grim. But don’t leave this post bummed out about Estonia! Nowadays, Estonians are riding high. In 1996, an Estonian named Ado Kosk invented the sport of Kiiking – extreme swinging. The Kiiker stands on the swing and pumps his or her legs in an effort to get the swing to do a 360 degree turn. Or, as the official Kiiking website states in English translation:
“Kiiking is a challenging movement around the kiiking-swings spindel, where You must exceed the gravity and after that You can enjoy experience.”