SOFI OKSANEN is probably Estonia's best-known living novelist. Many Estonians are thrilled that her novel "Purge" has done so well (this blog gave it a rapturous review a few months ago). Estonia's president Toomas Hendrik Ilves gave her a medal. But some Estonians are less keen. Jaan Kaplinski, probably the country's most heavyweight writer (his fans hope he may win a Nobel prize for literature one day) had a crack at her on his blog in August.
My only, but very serious objection to the book is that it pretends to be a realistic story about life in Soviet Estonia in the second half of the XXth century.... S. O. who has no direct experience of the time and events she describes has taken parts of our life, sewing them together according to some age-old rules of ideological-mythological literature, and is now selling it in the West. She is selling something that pretends to be our life, but isn't. Our life in the Soviet Union was not a horror story! Of course, there were many horrific episodes, years of terror and counter-terror, but as a whole, we lived a life that was often quite interesting and funny. I cannot approve the idea that my life, the life of my parents, my friends, my colleagues was not a life worth living, that we felt we were prisoners in a large prison camp. The USSR after the death of Stalin was not a prison camp. It was a lousy country, but there were and there are many much more lousy countries in the world. ... I don't want anybody to take my life away from me and sell an adulterated version of it to unknowing people abroad.
That passed largely unnoticed. But now the Estonian journalist Piret Tali has returned to the attack (link in Estonian), accusing her of "wallowing in violence".
Now another heavyweight commentator has entered the fray: Mihhail Lotman, an MP and son of the legendary semiotician Yuri. His counterblast (link in Estonian) may make painful reading for some of Oksanen's critics. And Estonia's foreign minister has come to her defence too.
I find all this rather sad, not because it may hurt Ms Oksanen's feelings (it will be good for sales, and that, believe me, is what makes authors happy). It is sad because it shows that some Estonians (albeit only a small minority of the Tallinn chatterati) still think about literature in what sound rather like Soviet terms.
Ms Oksanen's book is indeed a bleak and gory picture of a slice of life in Soviet-occupied Estonia. It certainly does not portray a complete picture, and largely leaves out the humdrum normality (and even happiness) of much of life before 1989. But novels are not works of social history: if they were, few people would read them. As a novel, "Purge" works rather well. Nobody reading it will believe, as Ms Tali seems to be arguing, that all Estonian women are whores, any more than someone reading Dorothy Sayers would think that all Englishmen are like Lord Peter Wimsey.
Estonians should also think twice about complaining that Oksanen's book is unrepresentative of their country's literature (She is half-Estonian, but also half-Finnish). The time when authors had to pass tests of social and political suitability before being published are over. If other Estonian writers are better, let them try their luck in the brutally competitive world of international publishing deals. I personally think that a lot more Estonian literature, especially from past decades, deserves to be published in English and I'd be glad to read it. Perhaps as a start someone could offer the out-of-copyright works as e-books.