Tag Archives: Finnish

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Today’s post, featuring a fictional older woman, is from northern Europe. The novel was written in Finnish and is set in Estonia. Estonia has been occupied and claimed for centuries by its neighbours, even since the end of the First World War, and with considerable bloodshed and hardship. The lives of the two women in the novel, one older another two generations younger, are shaped by these events, and they have received abuse about their loyalties and been exploited for them. The fractured history of the country has broken families and friendships and most people have left the countryside. The novel is set in the village of Läänemaa and in 1992 it is dying.

This is the 53rd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. It was recommended by a reader of my guest posts on the Global Literature in Libraries blog in August 2019. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Purge

We meet Aliide Truu as an old woman, apparently abandoned in her family home in the Estonian forest at the end of the 20th Century. Estonia is an independent country, recently freed from the hated Soviet influence. Aliide is the widow of Martin, a supporter of the Communist regime. She appears to be a harmless old lady, cooking up her brews, living a very small existence, with habits of suspicion and frugality. She is fearful for she must manage her house on her own and she is still taunted by village people for her Communist connections, although the village is more or less deserted. The young go to Tallin. 

Her life is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Zara, who is trying to escape from the traffickers who control her life. She is in a bad way. She has deliberately searched for this house and for Aliide. Reluctantly, suspiciously, Aliide allows her into the house and feeds her.

The book hops about in time, through the German occupation and the Soviet years. Neither was good for the village and its inhabitants. We learn more about Aliide’s past and her childhood in the village with her sister, Ingel. The re-evaluation of Aliide begins for the reader when we find that she had always been jealous of her sister’s beauty and accomplishments, and she resented her sister’s marriage to Hans, with whom Aliide is obsessed. 

The Communists have wanted to find Hans who opposed Communist rule, but the sisters hide him in secret places on their farm. Some brutal questioning takes place, including of Ingel’s child, Linda. The men involved reappear from time to time in the later narrative, and always have a terrible effect upon Aliide. 

Through Aliide’s contrivance using her husband Martin’s position, Ingel and Linda are exiled to Siberia, ending up in Vladivostok. This is the purge of the title, Stalin’s purge of Estonia’s collaborators with the German occupation. Aliide regains possession of the cottage and the care of Hans. Hidden from Martin and the village Hans becomes Aliide ‘s prisoner for several years, but he remains cold towards her. 

In the present of the novel, that is 1992, Zara’s traffickers are searching for her, and they have a good idea that she is near Aliide Truu’s cottage. She only managed her escape, after several years of sexual slavery, by violent means. Zara can speak Estonian, for it emerges that she is Linda’s daughter, Aliide’s great niece. As Pasha and Lavrenti close in on Zara, Aliide hides her as she hid Hans. 

 Brutality creates more brutality and finally, by appearing to be the sweet old lady we met at the start of the novel, Aliide finds a way to resolve Zara’s immediate difficulties. 

This novel has been issued in the ‘cult classics’ series by the publisher. Cult is a word that sometimes signals violence, and there is plenty of that in this book, especially violence against women. Suffering and mayhem has been visited on this village and its people and Estonia itself over the decades. The future is not likely to give Aliide a better life, although Zara can move on from her time as a sexual slave.

Purge does not offer any cosy solutions, or happy endings, or any comfortable idea that women working together will improve the world. Instead, it shows how deeply wounding the troubled history of northern Europe has been on women. The price of survival, and of collusion, is very high and includes damaged relationships, trauma, suspicion and violence, even within families, with no suggestion of resolutions. Perhaps the best image of this is the blowfly, which at the start of the novel is looking for rotting flesh in Aliide’s kitchen. It is also reproduced as a cut-out on the cover.

Sofi Oksanen

Born in Finland, with a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, Sofi Oksanen is well known in her homeland for her writing, plays, journalism and novels. Purge is her only novel to have been translated into English. It was first conceived as a play, then a novel and since its publication it has also been turned into an opera and adapted as a film. 

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, first published in Finnish in 2008, and the English translation by Lola Rogers by Atlantic Books in 2010. 262pp. 

Other European titles in the series: Older Women in Fiction

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg (Sweden)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Sweden)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)

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Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Books are sometimes objects of beauty in their own right. The novellas published by Peirene are beautifully produced, as well as being well-chosen examples of European literature. Mr Darwin’s Gardener was first published in Finnish in 2009. Kristina Carlson is a noted Finnish writer, winner of the Finlandia Prize and Finland’s State prize for Literature. She also writes children’s literature.

This is not a novel that has a strong narrative, rather it builds through many voices a picture of life in the village of Downe in Kent, where Darwin lived as an old man. He died in 1882, so perhaps it’s a winter in the late 1870s.

28. darwin gardener

Mr Darwin’s Gardener has been described as postmodern. If this means that it is unconventional I’ll go with that. The author is not an omniscient presence, and the voices and point of view belong to several members of the village, shifting between them as they comment on matters of concern to the villagers. In order to understand how to read this novel I found the reference to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood very helpful. But in no sense is this similar to Under Milk Wood, mostly because it’s not a play for radio and you don’t hear Richard Burton in your head.

Thomas Davies, the gardener of the title, is present throughout a great deal of the book. His grief at the death of his wife is a challenge to himself and to the village. But in one section he is not even mentioned. This is the curious incident of rough justice meted out to the philandering and light-fingered former verger, Daniel Lewis, who unwisely returns to the village.

Carlson’s novel manages to evoke the communal beliefs about death, misdemeanours, charity, new scientific knowledge, as well as the cycles of nature on which all life is based.

I found it hard to follow the individual villagers, especially as it took a little while to work out what the book required from the reader. I reread it with a notebook and pen to get to grips with the various characters and their relationships. This second reading produced a layer of individual characterisation that was delightful and unexpected. Kristina Calrlson  beautifully evokes a village steeped in its own practices and beliefs, where things change slowly, where the reader had to pay attention to shifts in the text, to references to events beyond the village. Slight tensions were revealed between mother and daughter, as were the weakness of a husband before his wife and the rest of the community, the drunkenness of the doctor and the fearfulness of the schoolmaster.

I also enjoyed the many small details of the animal life in the village:

A brown hare leaps over the stubbly field at the edge of the forest, stops, stands erect. Another brown hare stops, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh. They stand tall on their hind legs, some twenty yards apart, ears straight, bodies immobile.

The wind blows from the field into the forest. Two crows fly after a goshawk. The crows circle the hawk, and when the hawk breaks its flight to hover, the crows catch up with it. The hawk beats the air with its wings and flies high above the crows.

When the cat jumps over a fallen tree trunk, a rotten branch, sunk into the wet grass, cracks. In the blink of an eye, the brown hares spring into a run: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. They hop into the forest, and the hawk, gliding high above, sees a field underneath. Green, pointed shoots appear from the soil between pale-brown dry stubble. (p118-9)

And she’s good on smells as well.

The verger opens the church doors. The smell shoots out: bean farts, rotten teeth, skin and hair and wet woollen clothes. Poverty, mingled with the aromas of the swells: talcum, starch and eau de cologne. The smell of the service evaporates in the rain. Innes the vicar draws air into his lungs as he stops at the top of the steps to greet the church folk. God bless you. (p21-22)

This extract is a good example of how Carlson moves within a paragraph to introduce a character and their speech, or thoughts.

And here’s an example of profound observation, in this instance it is the thoughts of old Hannah Hamilton, confined to a wheelchair, who observes the inconsolable Thomas Davies.

Perhaps he plans to take the children with him. Then there would be no one left to grieve.

I know that death is not what a suicide really wants; in fact, he wants his old life back. But you cannot reverse time as if it were a horse. As I grow older and older, I begin to forget things. Evil deeds disappear, and the good ones fade after five minutes. (p12)

And I loved the section which begins ‘We are talking in the saloon bar of the Anchor …’ (p74). What follows is four and a bit pages of the views of the villagers, often as non-sequiturs, or mundane or profane, even profound. The conversation in any pub bar might sound like this today.

I marvel at the job of translation by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah. Here is a link to Emily writing on translation and about the challenges it poses.

The design of the Peirene series by Sacha Davison Lunt is a strong element in their attraction. Mr Darwin’s Gardener has a delightful drawing of an apple in cross-section and a bee by Giulia Morselli. The paper is a pleasure to touch, and the typeface clear, unfussy. I initially subscribed for a year, but after receiving the first two novellas I have signed up for another two years.

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