Category Archives: Sofi Oksanen

Savidge Reads Grills… Sofi Oksanen

Someone was asking me the other day how I choose the authors for my ‘Savidge Reads Grills…’ and my response is that because this is a blog that’s about my personal reading life I only want the authors whose books have meant a lot to me in some way to be those that I grill. ‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen was a book I read last year and raved about. I thought it was incredible and wanted everyone I knew to read it, its one of those books you by for everyone you know and then realise you might have bought someone it twice. ‘Purge’ is still a book that I think about a lot, it’s never quite let me go, so naturally I wanted to Grill the mind that created it. As luck would have it I managed to catch up with its author over a virtual coffee in an airport…

Picture by Toni Härkönen

Can you explain the story of ‘Purge’ in a single sentence without giving anything too much away?

Not really, sorry 🙂 What is most important theme in the book depends on the reader and their personal background… For some it’s a book about betrayal or obsession, for some about the envy between sisters, for others it’s a book about repression in general or about the history of Estonia. Or history of any occupied country.

How did the story come about? Was it a series of subjects you had always wanted to write about? Where did you create Aliide and Zara from or did they just create themselves?

Well there were several different reasons on the background. I wanted to write about passive resistance by women – as a child I had heard lots of legends about forest brothers, the members of the resistance movement in occupied Estonia, but they wouldn’t have managed without the help of women and children and I wanted to write about what it meant for women and children, the helping.

Then there was another story in the family, about a girl who was taken to be questioned and she did came back home and looked like she was physically ok, but she never spoke since. So I started to thinking, what does it take to make someone that silent? I had just read books by Slavenca Drakulic, a Croation author I value highly – she has written about the Balkan war and it was shocking and appalling to realize there were rape concentration camps practically in the middle of Europe in 90s. It’s something that doesn´t really fit with the image we have about modern Europe. But it did happen. So how can we be sure it won´t happen again? Rape wasn´t defined as a war crime until lately (by European Union). So there´s lots of work to be done.

And another point: Soviet narrative has been defining the Eastern European countries for decades – also in the West. So there are plenty of Eastern European stories and voices who deserve to have their own voice.

‘Purge’ is a book that has really haunted me ever since I read it, how did you work out how to put the reader through all that without making it clichéd or emotionally manipulative?

Well this is quite difficult question – I just try to write as well as possible 🙂

I also think its one of those rare books that you live through with the characters; you really experience it which can be quite hard to read. How hard was it to write a book that so emotive and harrowing, how did you stop yourself from becoming an emotional wreck?

Writing is easy, always 🙂 I’m afraid it would be more difficult for me not to write.

‘Purge’ has been turned into a play in America, how did that come about and how involved were you? Will it be coming to the UK? Are there plans for a film?

Purge is just about to have its premier in Washington DC; the first production in US was in New York City. I haven’t yet heard about confirmed productions in UK, but hopefully the play will be staged in UK as well. The rights for the film have been sold, but I don’t know when the film is coming out.

I’m pretty busy with all the translations coming out all over the world and that means lots of travelling as well so I don’t have really time to get involved with the stage productions as well. I trust the professionals know what to do 🙂

The success of ‘Purge’ has been phenomenal; you’ve won awards and been read by hundreds and thousands of people. Does that put pressure on you for the next book, or are you just enjoying this all at the moment and not thinking down that route?

Well I’m afraid I don’t really have to think about this success, there’s so much work to do and so many productions on the way.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I started writing when I learned to write and that was at the age of six.

Which books and authors inspired you?

Marguerite Duras, Anna Ahmatova, Sylvia Plath, Arto Salminen, Asko Sahlberg, the Brontë-sisters, Aleksandr Solzenitsyn. As a child I really loved adventures of Angelique, by Serge Anne Golon.

Are there any Finnish authors that you really wish were translated into English but haven’t been yet?

Plenty! Let’s say Arto Salminen and Asko Sahlberg. Rosa Liksom and Aino Kallas are Finnish authors I rate but there are translations in English available.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

Not really. My daily routine is so irregular nowadays and has been since I published my first novel. I can write everywhere, but prefer solitude, and let’s say it’s always good to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

Well book blogging is not too active in Finland, but it’s very important for example in Lithuania where people don’t trust media (too much corruption), but they trust bloggers 🙂 And I guess the influence of book blogging is especially essential in the countries with limited freedom of speech and corrupted media.

In Finland book bloggers can push the attention to books that are ‘old’ or marginal and besides it diminishes the influence of big papers, or their critics, and that is a good thing. New, fresh voices are always a good thing. However due to my profession I make my personal reading list on the basis of the catalogues publishers are sending me 🙂 And also on the basis of my work in process.

You have two other novels prior to ‘Purge’ please say these are soon to be translated into English?

Depends on the publisher 🙂

Which contemporary authors do you rate at the moment?

Oh, there are plenty of them! So I cannot pick up just one. But my favourites from the past few years are books by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sarah Waters and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

My all time favourites are for example Nightwood by Djuna Barnes and L´Amant by Marguerite Duras. And very important is also The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Soltzenitsyn. I just bought the Finnish rights for the book (for my company) and I’m publishing it in Finland 2012-2013. It will be the first time when the book will be completely published in Finland – for example the first volume was published in Finnish in 70s, but in Sweden… Finnish publishers didn’t want to risk their business with Soviets so they didn’t dare to take the book.

What is next for Sofi Oksanen?

The new novel coming out in Finland 2012 fall. It’s the third part of the Quartet, 4-novel serious about separation of the Europe and its consequences. And this fall there’s also coming out a book including my lyrics. And plenty of translations.

A big thank you to Sofi for taking time out to be grilled, you can find her website here. You can also win a copy of ‘Purge’ in the post below.

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Purge – Sofi Oksanen

There are some books that I read where I simply want to type ‘you need to read this book’ a few hundred times instead of actually doing a review and ‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen is one such book. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to go off and buy a book just on my say so and of course I shall be giving you my thoughts rather than simply copying and pasting ‘you need to read this book’ over and over again. Can you pick up any subliminal messages I might be leaving in this opening paragraph at all?

‘Purge’ is going to be rather a hard book to write about in part because of how big the story is (not in terms of pages just in terms of story and subject matter) or because some of the book is harrowing to say the least but also because to give too much away with this story, I think, would lessen the impact it could have on a reader coming to it and to do that to a book/reading experience such as this would be a disservice. Anyway let’s see how we get on.

Aliide Truu lives a slightly solitary life near woods in the Estonian countryside. One morning after waging a war with a fly, which initially you think are the only bane in her life – you’d be thinking wrong, she spots something in her garden. That something turns out to be young woman, one who is wearing expensive clothes and yet is covered in dirt and bruised, a young woman who has appeared under her tree in the dead of night, a girl Aliide knows she shouldn’t take in because you can almost feel the danger coming from her, and yet Aliide does.

Slowly but surely as Aliide spends the following day or so with the girl, Zara, both Zara’s recent horrific past (the fact this setting is the early nineties was quite shocking for me) starts to unfold as  does Aliide’s which is a past with her sister over fifty years ago which she has wiped from her brain and buried deep elsewhere. As we read on two stories unfold that look at the history of Estonia and its women, the trials they have had to face and how they endured and survived. I shall say no more on the plot other than I think this is a tale that needs to be told and therefore to be read and heard by us no matter how difficult it can get in parts.

Sofia Oksanen has written something quite amazing. It is a rare book that takes me on such an emotional journey and to such dark places and yet leaves me almost unable to put the book down. Her prose is absolutely stunning (and here I should credit Lola Rogers on a fantastic translation) and without ever being too graphic she manages to drop in enough information to let the reader work out what’s going on and yet leave enough unsaid that we create the scenes in our own minds which is often the more disturbing and effective than spelling everything out.

Her two main characters Aliide and Zara are incredible creations. One initially a rather eccentric old lady living alone becomes a kind of unsung heroine, the other a girl who dreamed of a better life and took the opportunities to get there naively and with dark consequences yet who is a survivor. These characters make what could have just become a completely harrowing book (and it’s not because there are some moments of humour here and there) a book that is really about triumph and how people can and will cope when pushed to the edge. It’s also a tale about families.

“That smile became their first game, which sprouted word by word and started to blossom mistily, yellowish, the way dead languages blossom, rustling sweetly like the needle of a gramophone, playing like voices underwater. Quiet, whispering, they grew their own language. It was their shared secret, their game. As her mother did housework, her grandmother would sit in her usual chair, and Zara would take out toys and other things or just touch an object, and Grandmother would form its name in Estonian, silently, with her lips. If the word was wrong, Zara was supposed to notice it. If she didn’t know the word, she wouldn’t get any candy, but if she caught the mistake, she always got a mouthful of sweets. Her mother didn’t like it that Grandmother gave her candy for no reason – or so she thought – but she didn’t bother to intervene beyond a disapproving sniff.”

I strongly urge people to give this book a go. I don’t think books like this come around that often and it really needs to become a success worldwide (it’s already done very well in the rest of Europe). No its not a cosy read for these darker nights but it’s a gripping story that we all need to be told and one that Sofi Oksanen tells in a rather breath taking fashion. A must, must, must read book that may leave you changed a little after the final page. 10/10

I know some of you might now say that you would like to read this but it might be too disturbing and I hope you will look past that and test yourselves. I don’t mean that in a patronising way it’s just sometimes books need to test us and take us places that we don’t want to go. So I thought I would not only ask if anyone else has read this (have you?) but also for you to name me some books which have made for uncomfortable reading in parts but been an incredible and overall almost life changing experience to read as I would love some more recommendations of books along the lines of ‘Purge’?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2010, Review, Sofi Oksanen