A REVIEW OF SOFI OKSANEN'S
BY LEE SHEPPARD
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 4 | February 15, 2013
At the beginning of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge there is a map, a feature I associate most strongly with fantasy books. Estonia, especially under Soviet rule, is Middle Earth to me; its social realities, people and geography are largely familiar, but unfamiliar in ways essential to the story. Maps are also found on the front pages of books about travel, exploration or war. While one of Purge’s main characters, Zara Pekk, does travel from her home in Vladivostok to Berlin and eventually to Läänemaa, Estonia, she is not on vacation or pursuing a noble purpose like anthropological discovery, though she does find out a great deal about men of a certain type. This is a war book, though it does not take the macro view of events. It is like Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair in that war is the essential precondition of the story, but not a central character. While much of the book takes place in 1992, the year after the end of Soviet rule in Estonia, it covers a period from 1936 through World War II and the Soviet Estonia years, which include Stalin-sanctioned purges. One effect of the choice to include the map is to recognize the events featured in the novel—deeply horrific examples of men’s violence against women among them—as globally relevant acts of war
Aliide Truu’s house, the novel’s main setting, is swarming with flies. Each time I noted a mention of them I worried that I was chasing a motif as superfluous and persistent as Mikael Blomqvist’s coffees and sandwiches in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. I obviously had forgotten that the second chapter of Purge is titled “The Fly Always Wins,” and begins with this passage:
Aliide Truu stared at the fly, and the fly stared back. Its eyes bulged and Aliide felt sick to her stomach. A blowfly. Unusually large, loud and eager to lay its eggs. . . . The fly was waiting. Waiting for Aliide to tire of chasing it around the room, to give up, open the kitchen door. The flyswatter struck the curtain. The curtain fluttered, the lace flowers crumpled, and carnations flashed outside the window, but the fly got away and was strutting on the window frame, safely above Aliide’s head.
The fly starts out as Aliide’s antagonist, but gradually its relationship to her becomes more complex. Lamenting the death of her dog, Aliide reflects that, “it was impossible to remember that there was on one else to feed in the house except herself and the flies.” Through the despair, you can hear a hint of companionable feeling. Later, at a significant meeting in the novel, “a horsefly flew into [Aliide’s] mouth, and she couldn’t cough it out...” Eventually, the book’s flies become agitated whenever Aliide does, and, though Aliide still finds them disgusting, even the buzzing in her ears seems to be the sound of a fly’s wings.
Zara is “a mound” under a tree when Aliide first sees her. It takes Aliide a few pages to figure out just what she’s looking at:
It was a girl. Muddy, ragged, and bedraggled, but a girl nevertheless. . . . Her red-lacquered fingernails were in shreds. Her eye makeup had run down her cheeks and her curls were half straightened; there were little blobs of hairspray in them, and a few silver willow leaves stuck to them. Her hair was bleached until it was coarse, and had greasy, dark roots. But under the dirt her skin seemed overripe, her cheek white, transparent. Tatters of skin were torn from her dry lower lip, and between them the lip swelled tomato red, unnaturally bright and bloody-looking, making the grime look like a coating, something to be wiped off like the cold waxy surface of an apple.
Zara’s appearance certainly tells a story, but neither the reader nor Aliide is yet privy to the details of it. What stands out about this section is how Oksanen overturns symbols of beauty. Nail-polish, hairspray, eye makeup, bleached hair have been compromised by whatever has happened to Zara, but the word “overripe” casts a shadow of judgment over not just her skin, but all the physical details that come before it, and implies that it is the way Zara is ‘done up’ that contributes to her ruinous appearance. The “grime” that looks “like a coating” seems meant to describe all the beauty products in addition to the dirt and red lipstick. I appreciate the suggestion that Zara is an apple, a symbol of temptation and sin, but one that is, in this case, not overripe. It allows for the possibility that Zara herself is not corrupted by the events that have made her look this way.
Aliide takes a scythe with her when she goes out to speak with Zara. Aliide’s fear is complex. There is simple fear of physical harm. I might grab a scythe if a) I had one; and b) I found a stranger lying in a heap in my garden if c) my property was isolated. Aliide’s fear is complicated when Zara begins speaking:
The words jostled one another, beginnings of words were tangled up with endings, and the accent was Russian.
This scene takes place in 1992, the year after Estonian Independence, so fear of Soviets is the most obvious explanation for Aliide’s anxiety that the girl has a Russian accent. There is “something familiar” about Zara’s “gaping mouth. The girl herself wasn’t familiar, but the way she behaved was...” Finding lying yards from your front door, a person who reminds you of someone or something would indeed be unnerving. Finally, and perhaps most significantly from both a narrative and a thematic perspective, it is that Zara is “spreading the repulsive, familiar smell of fear” that most threatens Aliide, who recognizes Zara as a victim of violence. Zara sits on a bench under a tree and the wind drives the leaves into her face. When Aliide suggests that Zara move, the older woman observes that Zara “looked like she was remembering something. That you can get out of the way of leaves that are lashing you?”
Aliide is expert at identifying women who have been victims of violence. There are two good reasons for it, neither of which I will describe, though the first reason is implied by this clue from early in the book: “[Aliide] was wearing two pairs [of underwear], as usual, as she had every day since that night at town hall. She had also tried men’s breeches sometimes. They had briefly made her feel safer.” Later in the book, Oksanen confirms our suspicions then provides a memorable passage describing Aliide’s experience of being in public:
From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye. Did they say it to those women, too—did they tell them that every time you go to bed with your husband you will remember me?
Women watching other women and feeling judged by other women is a prominent motif in the first half of the novel. When Aliide notices other victims of men’s violence, “she would always think of something bad to say about those women, berate and bad-mouth them to differentiate herself from them.” As Aliide dissects Zara’s dress and movements when the two first meet, Zara’s appearance seems like a critique of the violent effects of beauty’s demands. Note, however, the jealousy implied in this description. “...[H]er black, translucent stockings had runs in them. They didn’t bag at the knees—they were tight-knit, good stockings. Definitely Western. The knit shone in spite of the mud.”
A few chapters later, during a flashback to the time before Zara has left her home in Vladivostok, she receives a visitor. “The babushkas got quiet on the bench beside the house and stared at the shining metal of the car and the glistening leg.” The babuskas are looking, and we sense, judging. “Zara had never seen anything like it; it was the color of skin; it didn’t look anything like a stocking... But the light gleamed on the surface of the leg in such a way that there had to be something there—it wasn’t just a naked leg. It looked as if it had a halo, like the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, gilded with light at the edges.” In this echo of the earlier description is the implied threat that this leg represents. Oksanka, the woman wearing the stockings, had moved to Moscow to go to university and ended up “going to work in Germany. After that [Zara] hadn’t heard from her at all until this moment. The transformation was amazing. Oksanka’s lips glimmered like someone’s in a Western magazine... ” Oksanka is the siren call of beauty, an image that contrasts with the vision of Zara when we are introduced to her:
Oksanka came toward the front door, and when she saw Zara she stopped and waved. Actually it looked more like she was scraping at the air with her red fingernails. Her fingers were slightly curled, as if she were ready to scratch. The babushkas turned to look at Zara. One of them pulled her scarf closer around her head. Another pulled her walking stick between her legs. A third took hold of her walking stick in both hands.
By noting the babushkas silent observation of this scene, Oksanen is asking us to imagine what these three old women, with their headscarves and walking sticks, think of Oksanka’s haloed leg, glimmering lips and red claws.
Purge is written in free indirect style with both Aliide’s and Zara’s voice employed by the narrator. This makes scenes between the two dynamic and stimulates question after question about what is true and why each character feels compelled to hide these truths from each other. One of the thrills in reading this book is in guessing at the answers. Sadly, I discovered the secret of the relationship between Zara and Aliide accidentally when I noticed that a few pages at the back of my copy of the book had grey margins and I flipped to them to discover a “Reading Group Guide”. The one question that caught my eye was the spoiler. My disappointment was not being able to experience the thrill at Oksanen’s artful revelation of this piece of information.
Bit by bit Oksanen will answer all the questions she coaxes you to ask while managing to withhold some serious surprises until the end. Don’t flip ahead or read the readers’ guide. And pay attention to the flies.
LEE SHEPPARD is a writer, musician, high school teacher, and contributing co-editor of Pilot, an illustrated literary magazine.