In an echo of Shelley’s famous claim that, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ the Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen recently remarked in an interview that, ‘The writer’s job is to change the world.’ This notion that writing can have a moral power is fundamental to Oksanen’s work. For her, the very act of writing seems to be a real confrontation with illegitimate authority. Art, at its most serious and honest can be a resistance to oppression.
Purge, Oksanen’s first novel to be translated into English, is about power – its pitfalls and the ways in which it destroys human beings. Occupation and subjugation, of both land and women are also key themes and Oksanen has stressed that, ‘this parallel between repressed nations and women is something I have used myself in my novels about Estonia and Estonian women.’ Spanning six decades to include the Second World War, the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet forces and Estonia’s eventual independence, the novel explores these events through the eyes of Aliide and her great-niece Zara, who have both suffered shocking abuse throughout their lives. Their day-to-day survival depends upon silence, and this idea of the unspoken and the suppressed runs throughout the novel. Aliide notes at one point that, ‘The silence had been peculiar that year – expectant, yet at the same time like the aftermath of a storm’. It is a complicated silence, negotiating both the past and the future, and reveals Aliide’s inability to face her past and consequently her unwillingness to pronounce on the future.
Purge opens with the following lines by the Estonian poet Paul-Eerik Rummo: ‘There is an answer for everything,/ if only one knew the question.’ The women in Purge are trapped in a world dictated by this conundrum; they have stayed silent too long to be able to form the questions that can help them move on. But both atonement and recovery depend upon breaking out of this cycle of denial and silence. Oksanen’s important novel ultimately seeks to point the way to a fragile redemption, and perhaps even hope.
Sophia Brown is an Assistant Editor at Orion Books, working across the Orion and Phoenix paperback imprints. She lives in London and wishes that she could read faster.