22 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Riikka Pulkkinen’s True, which is available from Other Press.

Riikka Pulkkinen studied literature and philosophy at the University of Helsinki. Her debut novel, The Border, sparked international interest when it was published in 2006. Her second novel, True, will mark her English debut. Riikka Pulkkinen received the Kaarle Prize in February 2007 and the Laila Hirvisaari Prize in May 2007.

Here is part of the review:

Elsa is dying of cancer. Her husband Martti, a successful artist, and her ambitious daughter Eleonoora, who is a renowned surgeon, are struggling to cope with the impending loss. In spite of their immense, largely independent professional success, neither Martti nor Eleonoora are able to comprehend life without Elsa. A commanding presence who held her family together prior to her illness, Elsa, a famous psychologist, aims to do just that during her last few weeks, electing to stay at home instead of in hospice care. Eleonoora’s daughter Anna decides to care for Elsa in the aftermath of the dissolution of a relationship. Anna is very deeply depressed, not because she misses the man (she is living with a man who she does love), but because she began to think of the man’s child as her own. Caring for her grandmother seems like the perfect distraction. However, Anna finds herself more immersed in the psychological drama that silently shaped her mother’s childhood and mirrors her own life in strange and unexpected ways. True, by Riikka Pulkkinen, is less about a family’s struggle with cancer, and more about the mind’s ability to create false memories and a family’s ability to restructure in the face of loss, and how sometimes it’s hard to recover from the same loss twice.

Click here to read the entire review.

22 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Elsa is dying of cancer. Her husband Martti, a successful artist, and her ambitious daughter Eleonoora, who is a renowned surgeon, are struggling to cope with the impending loss. In spite of their immense, largely independent professional success, neither Martti nor Eleonoora are able to comprehend life without Elsa. A commanding presence who held her family together prior to her illness, Elsa, a famous psychologist, aims to do just that during her last few weeks, electing to stay at home instead of in hospice care. Eleonoora’s daughter Anna decides to care for Elsa in the aftermath of the dissolution of a relationship. Anna is very deeply depressed, not because she misses the man (she is living with a man who she does love), but because she began to think of the man’s child as her own. Caring for her grandmother seems like the perfect distraction. However, Anna finds herself more immersed in the psychological drama that silently shaped her mother’s childhood and mirrors her own life in strange and unexpected ways. True, by Riikka Pulkkinen, is less about a family’s struggle with cancer, and more about the mind’s ability to create false memories and a family’s ability to restructure in the face of loss, and how sometimes it’s hard to recover from the same loss twice.

One afternoon when Anna is drinking wine and having a picnic with her grandmother, they decide to play dress-up. Anna appears wearing a beautiful party dress she found in the attic. This drudges up a slew of old, unpleasant memories for Elsa. Elsa begins to tell Anna about Martti’s affair with Eleonoora’s nanny Eeva, who the dress belonged to. Two storylines begin to unfold: the family coping with Elsa’s impending death and Anna coping with her breakup and her inability to visit with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter, and Anna’s identification with Eeva, who suffered from similar feelings after her relationship with Martti was cut short by Elsa discovering about it. Anna begins to invent Eeva’s life in her own mind, and it soon becomes difficult to divorce Anna’s feelings and creations from her own memories.

We soon find out that Eleonoora’s mind is playing tricks on her as well. Elsa, a successful psychologist, travels a lot during Eleonoora’s early childhood, and many of her early memories of her mother are not in fact Elsa but instead are Eeva, but Eleonoora has no way of remembering this: she was too young at the time, and Elsa has reinforced her false memories by providing false information. The lines have blurred between Eeva the mistress and nanny and Elsa the biological mother, creating one woman who raised her: Mom. The day trips she took with Eeva and Martti while Elsa was away on business have firmly established Eleonoora’s memories of her mother, although it is not actually her mother. The following passage, narrated by Eeva, illustrates one false memory in particular:

Later she [Eleonoora] remembers this boating trip, although she remembers nothing else from the whole summer. She builds memories from the words of others, but she tells her own daughter about this trip, as if it’s a precious thing—the nicest part was Mom and Dad and I went out in the boat to the island. Mom usually rowed, but Dad did sometimes. The sun was a friendly fire in the sky, it felt like the world had always been nothing but light and water and melted Fazer chocolate in a blue wrapper and I could lick it off the foil to my heart’s content.

Eleonoora has unknowingly been shaped during her childhood by Elsa, who was able to gather her daughter’s fragmented memories and reform them into a singular mother. However, this uses Eleonoora’s difficulty coping with Elsa’s death, after already having become estranged with Eeva, as a means to explore the bonds between mother and daughter, and how easily they can be altered by providing inaccurate information during the formative years. Eleonoora was confronted by the loss of the second half of her maternal figure, which shows how sometimes the mind and the heart falsely establish memories as coping mechanisms, seeking to avoid the pain of loss that Eeva and Anna ultimately shared by becoming estranged from individuals they grew to love. However, because Elsa protected her daughter (and by extension Martti) from this first crucial loss, Eleonoora is unequipped for the more significant loss of her real mother—which is really where the story begins.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some time in the past I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. (Finland-Estonia, Grove/Black Cat)

In terms of the book itself, I don’t have a lot to add to Larissa’s perceptive review. But to tie this particular post back into the actual WPR “Here On Earth” conversation that sparked this sporadic series of posts, I have to post a picture of Sofi, aka, the “woman with the most amazing hair.” (I feel like I must’ve mentioned this a half-dozen times during that interview . . . it was like my verbal crutch of the moment . . .):

I finally met Sofi at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and really enjoyed talking with her. I say “finally” because I was supposed to meet her at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, but she wasn’t able to make it due to a bout of the swine flu. And continuing with a bit of cursed luck, prior to PEN World Voices, she was supposed to read in California, but, well, the volcano nixed that trip . . . As a friend said, she could write a book on being impacted by the not-so-insignificant global disasters of recent times.

Anyway, Purge is a really interesting book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Oksanen ends up writing. She’s really at the top of her game right now, having recently won the Nordic Prize for Purge, and was named Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009.

Although this may not be the most uplifting of the books in our summer roundup, it’s definitely worth checking out.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, which was translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers and published earlier this year by Grove/Black Cat.

Since this was one of the books I recommended on “Here on Earth,” I’ll save my comments for another post (which will be up in just a minute).

Larissa is one of our regular contributors and tends to focus on Scandinavian literature, which is one of her big interests. (That said, she’s also working on a review of Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango.)

Here’s the beginning of her review:

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller.

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word—their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.

As the novel delves into Aliide’s past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident—a brutal “interrogation” that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged—even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. “She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them,” we’re told.

From every trembling hand, she could tell—there’s another one. 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 . . .

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s . . . And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.

Even as Aliide’s attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her—even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home—the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions—much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent “[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar.”

Stroke her hair and say that it wasn’t her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.

There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption—in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.

Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide’s experiences—as well as those of her grandmother and mother—will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward—in order to truly reconcile with the past—such stories must finally be heard and examined.

....
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