On March 30th the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010 was awarded to Sofi Oksanen for her novel Puhdistus.
I had planned for a long time to read it, as I read an interview with her and several reviews that spoke highly of the novel. Usually I don’t select my readings by reviews, but everything I read, both on and in between the lines, hinted at something special, so I reserved it from my library as soon as I could (and ended up only no. 24 in line!). I finally got it and read it in two days. I know it is every publisher’s press release orgasm wording, but it sucked me in and wouldn’t let go until I had read the last sentence.
The novel takes place in Estonia, where an elderly farmer woman Aliide finds a woman called Zara, a trafficking victim, battered and bruised on her property. The women’s different yet similar histories are told in a very harsh but poetic way. Every imaginable pain, guilt and shame that can befall a woman both in a political dictatorship and tyrannical misogynistic rule is present. But just so it doesn’t all become one color, the story also tells of pride, survival instincts and imagination. And it made me angry, it made me empathize and gag and smile and nod agreeingly. There were so many layers of female thoughts all coming together in the novel. And I say female thoughts, not to say it is an entity far from male thoughts, but only to emphasize that the novel deals with the female experience of a system set in order by men, in which it is almost impossible for them not to step outside the line and get penalized. Male dominance is pervasive and his sexuality is being used as a weapon against, and on, women in ways that make you cringe.
Something I found very interesting was how Aliide’s jealousy of her sister manifested itself in the book. It is, for lack of a more appropriate word, beautifully described. It represents a woman engulfed in her sisters assets and successes so much that her sister almost gains a divine glare, a virginal innocence towards all evil thought and behavior, only thence to manifest darkness so more blatantly in Aliide.
She is such a complex figure in my mind, and yet so cliché when it comes to the failures in sisterhood. Aliide knows what she wants, and she is determined to get it at all (and I mean seriously at ALL) costs. I think she represents a figure who balances on the very fine edge of desire and survival. She is determined to survive, even if that means that she has to give up so many things that could enrich her life. She survives but at a cost. Is it society’s fault? Men? Her own or her family’s?
And when she lashes out, takes control of her life, person and property , it is almost as if it is too little to late, or in a totally exaggerated way.
Another interesting and reoccurring scene is when the women experience assault and their mind, in survival mode, takes them out of this threatening situation. Being the little piece of dust or a fleck of light on the hard cement floor, fleeing into a hole in the wood, and with every sentence being read you, the reader, are painfully aware, but not explicitly told of the horrors that are inflicted upon them. I can’t recapitulate the intensity of these passages with as much fervor as Oksanen does, but they are worth the read.
There is so much to delve into in this book, so much to emphasize, but I don’t want to make this too long. Safe to say, I will be picking this book up again at some point in time.