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A novel written in Finnish about the Estonian tragedy has become a bestseller in Finland. Sofi Oksanen born January 7, 1977  in Jyväskyla,  draws on her Estonian connection on her mother’s side to put a face on Estonia’s suffering, much like Anne Frank’s diary put a face on the Holocaust. The book, titled Puhdistus in Finnish, Puhastus in Estonian, and Purge in English has sold 150,000 copies in Finland. A similar success in the U.S. would translate into nine million. It’s going to be translated into 31 languages. Ms. Oksanen earned the biggest award in Nordic countries, the Nordic Council 2010 Literary Prize, and also the highest honor that Finland can bestow on an author, the Finlandia Award.
Ms. Oksanen’s U.S. book tour brought her to the Finnish Embassy in Washington on April 26, 2010.  Before a full  and enthusiastic house, Pekka Hako, Cultural Counselor of the Embassy, moderated a discussion with the author and a panel consisting of literary scholars, Tiina Käkela-Puumala, PhD  (Finland) and  Sirje Kiin, PhD (Estonia).
The novel grew out of a play with the same name.  Several productions of it are still running in Finland. The scholars pointed out how the book deals with universal themes of betrayal, envy, jealousy, sibling rivalry, revenge, guilt. How a society can be blackmailed through women. Sexual violence is used to exert political pressure, rape is used as a weapon of war. Oksanen does not revel in gory details, she reveals the horror through the psychological reactions of the victims. Her women are neither the angelic heroines nor the monstrous bitches of traditional male authors. Oksanen’s main character, Aliide Truu, is a bundle of  contradictions, a representation of what it was like to be a woman in the middle of the war and under the Soviet occupation.  The title of the book in both Finnish and Estonian refers to cleansing both in a physical and psychological sense. There’s a lot of washing of hands.  The English title seems a bit off the mark, but something always gets lost in translation.
An opportunity was missed that night. The moderator asked Ms. Kiin for Estonian history in a nutshell.  She pointed out that Estonia’s choices were between  bad and worse. Also the fact that Estonia lost a quarter of her population. So far, so good. But then an American asked in reference to Estonia “why in God’s name were the Germans interested in going there?” The audience tittered, the author sighed. And the explanation she offered was baffling, oil shale and the fact that Baltic Germans considered the country their property. And Ms. Kiin, whose background includes being a correspondent for Radio Free Europe and counselor to the Pro Patria party, did not take the opportunity to explain about the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, World War II, and the simple fact that the road to Leningrad was shortest through Estonia. A short and pithy reply to historically challenged questioners should be a part of every public speaker’s repertory.
An ample supply of the Purge in paperback was sold out by the Politics and Prose bookstore representative on the premises.
Ago Ambre

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