|The singer, not the song.|
Of course, my expectations were too high. I saw Oksanen's face in so many places, I began to wonder if was my own face, or just another one of my many faces. She has an image though. At the Helsinki Book Fair last month, it towered over the many sellers and booths, the poster of Oksanen. I walked into a vast exhibition and convention center, face to face with Angry Birds and whatever else, but all I could see was a giant Oksanen looming in the distance. Did she have another book coming out? I wasn't sure. What was most important was that she existed and was perhaps writing something new.
So I had my expectations. I cannot say that I loved the book, or understand its success. Still, 99 percent of the books available at the local shop aren't worthy of one's time, so something like this, a historical drama with pregnant themes shines through the shit. And I also cannot deny that Purge touched me in some way, or at least it has stayed with me. I can remember most of the characters, my images of them, their relationships to one another, the scenery. It's certainly like a film, and when I was informed that it was originally written as a play, it made perfect sense.
Yet something about the characters deeply annoyed me. One of the main story lines in the book was Aliide's deep affection for her brother-in-law Hans. And by the end of the book, I still couldn't see what she saw in the guy. Sure, it takes place many years ago, so perhaps this elementary school tale of unrequited love and jealousy could have played out between grown adults, but so many times I just wanted to reach through the pages and shake the young Aliide and maybe throw a glass of cold water in her face and say, "Stop being so naive!" My own cynicism prevented me from relating to such a story.
The character Zara seemed equally as naive. I think we all smelled sexual slavery the minute her friend in Vladivostock started to chat her up about promising opportunities in the West. I have known plenty of such naive young people in my life, perhaps once was one, and can believe in such turns of events. But as a reader, as someone in the story, I could not invest my emotions in such circumstances. Was it more tragic that she was a prostitute or that she was duped into becoming one?
Something about this book reminded me of DH Lawrence, or the half of Lady Chatterley's Lover I read before I put that down (and still haven't retrieved it on the way to the WC). Perhaps it was the relative powerlessness of the female characters, and how the external world, represented by male characters, fenced in their decisions, their lives. Constance Chatterley goes from Clifford Chatterley to Mellors, the gamekeeper. Her life is defined by her relationships to two very different men. Aliide's world is, again, defined by her relationships to two different men -- her brother-in-law Hans Pekk and her husband Martin Truu. And Zara is actually a slave to men -- to her pimp and his clients. Was James Brown right when he sang, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"? And here I am, living in Estonian matriarchy, thinking it's always been the other way around.
Anyway, let's contrast that with Oksanen, a woman whose life is now fenced in not by men, but by the overwhelming success of this novel, and who will spend the rest of her writing career trying to live up to those great expectations, or trying to distance herself from it. It's a phenomenon I have known at a much smaller scale. I would love to read a book about a character like Oksanen. Maybe she could write one. Or maybe that would be a little bit too much like Reality TV.