Sofi Oksanen: Purge (Puhdistus, 2009)
World War II and the cold war gave birth to the modern spy thriller, where everything was about uncovering secrets and false loyalties. In Purge, Oksanen seems to bury it once and for all, while at the same time reminding her readers that there are always going to be those who remember where the bodies are buried. The wars are over here, democracy and freedom have won the day, the KGB archives are opened, the oppressed are getting back what they lost and all the old lies are going to be uncovered... well, the ones the winners want uncovered, that is. It's not going to be easy. There's going to be deaths, both new and old, before it's over.
It's early 90s in newly independent Estonia, where the old woman Aliide has lived alone in her little cottage for years. As an old Soviet functionary she's despised and feared by her neighbours - a witch who may still have some sort of powers left. Children write insults on her door and throw rocks at her house, but nobody dares do anything more than that to drive her out. There's the big history, the collective one; 45 years of occupation and oppression can't not leave traces in a country that ceased to exist for decades and now has to be reinvented from the bits of history they can bear to remember.
Then one day, Aliide finds a young woman in her yard. Zara comes from Vladivostok and speaks the slightly archaic and accented Estonian of one born in exile. What she's doing in this part of the world is obvious from her outfit, make-up and skittishness; she's running from men in a big black car. That's the big history, the collective one: so many Balts were sent East by Stalin in the 40s and 50s, so many East European and Asian women are sent West nowadays to work in the thriving European sex trade.
But we know that, right? Dictatorship bad, democracy good, trafficking bad, etc. What makes Purge a great, entertaining, and uneasy bitches' brew of a novel is the way it interweaves the personal history with the big one, how they affect each other, and what exactly it is we build this bright new freedom on. How did these particular women end up on this particular farm of all places, what did they bring, and what's buried there? As Aliide and Zara sit there waiting for the big black car to inevitably find them Oksanen takes us back and forth through their history, tracing them from a young naive girl in the 30s through the shifting loyalties of the war, the Soviet years with its paranoia and secrets, on into the 90s. History is written by the victors, it's said, but of course losers write their history as well, why they were right, why their day will come, and what definitely didn't happen no matter what the other side may say. And in both Aliide's and Zara's life - and in the Soviet and Estonian records - there's so much that hasn't happened (can't have happened, mustn't have happened).Everything was repeating. Even though the ruble had been exchanged for the kroon, though there weren't as many fighter planes flying overhead, though the officer's wives had lowered their voices, though the anthem of independence blared from the speakers on Pikk Hermann every day, there was always a new leather boot, there was always a new boot, the same or different, always tramping in the same way across your throat.
Purge is reminiscent of Ian McEwant's Atonement in some ways: a masterful character drama based on our ability - our need - to sometimes lie to ourselves, re-tell the story not just to justify our own actions but to make heroes of the people who may just have been victims. To be able to live with ourselves. But unlike McEwan, Oksanen dares to give the screw another turn, in both cold fury and compassion, and explore the darker sides of what the cultivation of victimhood can lead to, the righteousness, the elective blindness.
The title refers to deportation, to expulsion. To exorcism of old demons, to witch trials. To catharsis and self-delusion. To cleansing (and we know what meaning the 90s gave to that word). To execution. All of it will finally come to the surface in that little cottage on the edge of an Estonian forest, where the ground is still poisoned since Chernobyl (since 1946, since 1942, since 1917, since Adam and Eve) and Aliide has spent decades filling her dark cellar with preserved goods. When the big history and the small ones collide, something's going to explode. And then, once again, someone's going to have to clean up the blood, hide the bodies, and pick a winner.