When she enters the lobby of a hip London hotel, heads spin even in this celebrity-jaded setting, for her waist-length black dreads are striped purple and shocking pink, echoing her masklike eye make-up and pouting, glossy lips.
The rock-star comparison is not used lightly.
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“With dreads,” she confides, shaking the Medusa plaits snaking around her head like so many subversive thoughts, “you never have a bad hair day.”
Helsinki-based Oksanen has been crowned with glittering prizes for her extraordinary third novel, Purge (2008) – her first to be published in English – about the long, cruel occupation of Estonia and the brutal modern crime of sex trafficking in Europe, as well as family betrayals, shameful secrets and lies. It’s a pitiless world in which regret is passed on to the next generation “with their lullabies”.
Her book has been hailed as “a masterpiece” and is now published in 38 countries. She’s the first person in Finland to win that country’s two most prestigious literary prizes: the Finlandia and the Runenberg, named for the 19th-century national poet, of which she’s the youngest recipient. A dozen other awards include France’s Prix Femina Étranger.
“I actually thought I was too young to write about Estonia’s 20th-century history, although I knew my history pretty well and I did a lot of research,” Oksanen confesses over a latte. The only child of an Estonian mother and Finnish father, she was barely 31 when Purge was published and, despite her international fame – she’s just flown in from Paris where her acclaimed first novel, Stalin’s Cows, about eating disorders, has just been published – it’s still difficult for her to see Purge as exceptional.
Nonetheless, readers everywhere tell her that they can’t forget it, that they dream about the book long after they’ve finished it. One Danish reviewer wrote of reading Purge “with rigid fingers and bated breath; it is almost unbearable to continue reading,” while the Independent’s critic talked about “the Goya-like landscape of this powerful, passionately-wrought novel,” when it was published here in hardback last year.
Now, it’s out in paperback, with a cover quote suggesting that Oksanen will soon be “as well known as Stieg Larsson”. (They are not in the same league: Oksanen can write – gorgeously – using poetic language as freighted with symbolism as a loaded gun. Also, she’s not a crime writer.)
Opening in 1992, Purge switches back and forth in time and the story, spanning some 50 years, is told through the eyes of two profoundly damaged women: Aliide Truu, a widow in her seventies, scratching a living on the outskirts of a forest in western Estonia, and Zara, “a dishrag of a girl”, the granddaughter of an Estonian woman exiled to Siberia during the mass deportation to Stalin’s gulags of those alleged to have collaborated with the Germans in the 1940s.
Aliide is tormented by stone-throwing boys reviling her for her Communist past, although she has attempted – in every sense – to bury it. “The only thing left alive was the shame.” The past, though, is not dead and buried. She takes in the bruised and bloodied Zara, who’s on the run from Russian pimps, after being trafficked from Vladivostok into Berlin as a sex worker. Their terrible histories are inextricably linked, and the heart-breaking question is, at what cost will the women survive?
Born in Jyvaskylain central Finland, Oksanen often summered in Estonia, where her grandmother lived on a kolkhoz, a Soviet collective farm. Her aunt, who lived in the capital Tallinn, had to get official permission for Oksanen and her mother to travel into the countryside, where the family had lived since the 17th century. Sometimes they were refused, so they would journey in secret, an awfully big adventure for a small girl, who had begun keeping a diary at the age of six, and who presented her first novel as a Christmas gift to her mother when she was 10 years old.
“I’ve always known that writing was my thing,” says Oksanen in excellent, charmingly fractured English.
Which explains why the stories her late grandmother told her about the past were so potent. “Purge has its roots in a story I heard as a child. An Estonian mother and daughter found a wounded soldier close to their house. They took him in and hid him in their home – they made a secret room for him, just as Aliide does for her brother-in-law, Hans, in Purge. The women healed the soldier, but somebody from the neighbourhood talked. So the Soviet authorities took the daughter for interrogation and subjected her to horrific sexual abuse. After that night, she was mute.”
The title of her book, therefore, is weighted with meaning, referring to Stalin’s purges and the abused victim’s desire for a purifying ritual. Both Aliide and Zara have been raped, 40 years apart, and have to cleanse themselves by bathing, then burning their clothes. In Finnish, the title “Pudhistus” also means cleaning of the most mundane sort – literally housework, although the first, most important meaning of her title is cleansing in the sense of the victim’s traumatic reaction to violence or rape, explains Oksanen.
Aliide is constantly battling grime and infestations of blowflies, mosquitoes, spiders, worms and mice, a powerful metaphor used throughout the novel, the second of a planned quartet about Estonia and Finland. Stalin’s Cows is the first and Oksanen is already writing the third, although she refuses to say what it’s about. (Her second book, Baby Jane, is about panic attacks: it’s a Nordic riposte to the grand guignol of the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford movie, her favourite film.)
“But I never forgot that story about the girl who wouldn’t speak that my grandmother told me,” explains Oksanen. “I have to write about these things because it’s important to remember. We must never forget.” A few years ago, she continues, she discovered Slavenka Drakulic’s important books, about the war in Bosnia and the women who had been raped there. “Those books shocked me. During that war, I was quite young and I hadn’t followed it, but suddenly for me a woman’s body became a metaphor for an occupied country and the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war be it in Europe, Africa or the Middle East today.
“When I learned that there were concentration camps where rape was practised in the middle of Europe while I was growing up, I wondered how was it possible that the world turned away. How could this go on in the 1990s?” Filled with rage and anger at the evil men do, she knew she had to write about it so she created a play, Purge. (“I didn’t write it in a fury; I feel no emotion whatsoever when I write,” she insists.)
She’s a graduate of Helsinki’s Theatre Academy and Purge was staged by the Finnish National Theatre. “The whole subject is so linked with shame and that’s why I had to write about sexual violence and the shocking modern crime of sex trafficking. It’s the third biggest black-market business after drugs and the weapons trade. There’s also the shame in a person’s face; the shame that means the victim of abuse can never look anyone in the eye again. So I felt it had to be a theatrical piece.”
However, as she watched the play in rehearsal she realised some voices were silent, particularly that of Aliide’s sister, Ingel. Silence is a form of terror, she suggests.
Does she agree with Robert Louis Stevenson that “the cruellest lies are often told in silence?” “Oh yes,” she responds fervently, adding that she had to give Ingel a voice. When she began writing Ingel’s story, other stories came, too. Suddenly, the play had become a 390-page novel. “It was easy,” she says.”I already had all the characters and the plot.”
Purge ends with a twist reminiscent of the brilliant Oscar-winning film, The Lives Of Others, about the Stasi, as KGB documents reveal the depths of betrayal to which people sank during the occupation. Oksanen spent hours poring over archived reports. They were a chilling read, she shudders. “The language in them is so mundane, so prosaic. People were only numbers to them.”
Before we part I ask her whether she has a partner at home in Helsinki – she outed herself as a bisexual several years ago, as well as admitting that she’s suffered from eating disorders.
She fires back in true reclusive rock-star mode: “I never talk about my personal life.”
Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Atlantic, £7.99)