‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen (2010) – 390 pages Translated by Lola Rogers
After reading ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ earlier this summer, I had no choice. That novel was so dramatic and intense, I absolutely had to read Sofi Oksanen’s earlier novel ‘Purge’. ‘Purge’ is perhaps an even stronger novel than ‘When the Doves Disappeared’, but it is a close call between the two books.
Here is the setup of the story in ‘Purge’. In 1992, An old woman, Aliide Truu, living in the Estonian countryside finds a young woman, Zara, lying in her yard and brings her into her house. Oksanen sets the situation up nicely as the two women develop a relationship so that Zara acts more like a daughter to Aliide than her own daughter.
Two ruthless men are pursuing Zara who was forced to work for them at sex trafficking and has now escaped.
The young woman Zara is hardly more than a girl. Zara wanted to get money for college, but instead she was taken up by two violent young Russian male pimps, Pasha and Lavrenti, who drove her to Berlin, Germany and peddled her for sex.
The old woman Aliide had to face her own brutal interrogation in the 1940s after the Russians took over Estonia from the Germans.
Oksanen pursues her usual technique of presenting short scenes out of order. The present time of the novel is 1992, but we are presented flashbacks for both Zara and Aliide.
Let’s talk a bit about this method of Sofi Oksanen, the method she has used effectively in both ‘Purge’ and ‘When the Doves Disappeared’. ‘Purge’ started out as a play. And I believe that fact was crucial to Oksanen in arriving at her technique.
Instead of presenting her scenes in chronological order, she skips around from time to time, from place to place. Thus one scene might be from 1992 in Estonia, and the next scene might be from 1991 in Vladivostok, and the next scene might be from 1945 in Estonia. This allows each scene to be presented in real time rather than as a memory. Real-times scenes in the here and now are much more vivid than memories. I find this technique increases the impact of the story. We are given the separate pieces of the puzzle as they are needed until they all fit together into a complete picture. The method also allows Oksanen to tell complex stories using simple dramatic single scene building blocks.
Gradually the full stories of both women are revealed, and all the pieces of the mosaic fit together into a compelling story.
Oksanen deals with the totality of these two women’s situations, the bad as well as the good. The author never veers away from any subject because it is just too awful or disgusting whether it be political torture or sex trafficking. Evil as these subjects are, they are a part of the lives of these people and must be dealt with. That is why ‘Purge’ gets to deeper truths than other novels do. In the presence of overwhelming evil, one must make allowances for ordinary people in order for them to survive.