Wednesday, May 19, 2010

And now, from the land of the midnight sun...

I've just finished reading Purge, a novel by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen, winner of the 2008 Finlandia prize (Finland's top literary honor), and featured at this year's PEN World Voices Festival (she was supposed to appear at Elliot Bay with Sherman Alexie, but was held up by the Icelandic volcano eruption.)

Despite my Finnish heritage, this is only my second foray into that country's fiction (though Purge is set in Estonia, it was written in Finnish). Norway and Sweden seem to hold a monopoly on chilly, violent thrillers (just browse the mystery section for proof) and many past winners of the Finlandia prize have yet to be translated to English. Oksanen's Purge may stand out because of its emotional and historic scope: how the fifty-year Soviet occupation of Estonia warps one family; how the devastating similarities of sexual slavery and political oppression affect women; how abandonment can ruin human beings and whole countries alike.

In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Estonia for 24 hours. I was on a post-college trip to Finland to discover my roots; actually, the language and culture program I was enrolled in turned out to be part of a recruitment campaign. Since Finland's population is declining, people of Finnish descent are in high demand. Return to your glorious motherland in the summer! Experience 20 hours of sunlight in a day! Try not to think of what that will mean in winter! Now move here and procreate! After several weeks of incomprehensible language classes, a few friends and I were ready for an unchaperoned adventure, so we bought tickets to travel to Tallinn, Estonia by ferry. Only 2 hours from Helsinki harbor, Tallinn boasts an intact, walled Medieval town. Combine that with the draw of low, non-Euro prices, and this tiny Baltic capital turns out to be quite the tourist attraction. I was traveling with two friends, one a Finnish-Egyptian and the other a Finnish-Canadian.

We spent the day wandering the labyrinthine passageways of the old town, taking pictures of the crumbling walls and the restored churches. Near the entrance to the old town there is a new shopping mall with a bookstore on the top level; between that and the waterfront, dirty alleys separate abandoned buildings, all broken glass and graffiti.
I wish I could've read Purge before that trip. It would've helped me understand the strange atmosphere created between the disparate parts of the city; the very old and the very new, with those abandoned buildings in between.
If you like authors with unique writing styles, or enjoy historical fiction that's a little more obscure, I highly recommend Purge. Oksanen is obsessed with the minutiae of her characters; everyone has a smell, tiny sounds are amplified, and physical sensations are made painfully real. See what you think. Maybe, like me, you'll be curious to read more.


Here's what's next on my Baltic reading list:

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

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