The Books Interview: Sofi Oksanen

You are sometimes described as a crime writer. Is that how you see yourself?
I'm only described that way in the UK. I think that might be because I'm from Finland, but I don't know - you might have a better explanation. I'm not a genre writer. The explosion of crime writing in Scandinavia is an interesting phenomenon, but I have to say that most of the popular Scandinavian crime authors are not Finnish. They are mostly Swedish.

One author whom you have cited as an influence on your work is Marguerite Duras, and she was not a crime writer. Why do you admire her?
I read her first when I was a teenager and the language she used really struck me, the musicality of it. It's not exactly the same when you read it in Finnish, but it's so obvious when you read it in French. I try to write in such a way that the language itself sounds beautiful. It's like I'm trying to sing with the language.

Your latest novel, Purge, began life as a stage play.
Yes. The Finnish National Theatre commissioned a play from me and I knew I was going to write a big role for an older female actor because I don't think there are too many big roles for them. They are always, at least in Finland, somebody's mother-in-law. I was writing a monologue for the central character, Aliide, and I noticed that I actually was writing a novel. It also felt very exciting, because when you have living actors in a story that involves violence, it is always a little bit complicated. But when you write a novel, you don't think about the limitations of the stage.

Much of the violence in Purge is bound up with sex trafficking in the former Soviet Union. Do you see the sex trade as one of the bitter fruits of the end of the USSR?
Yes. In the early 1990s, when everyone was happy about regaining their independence, nobody was thinking about those kinds of consequences. But every time a dictatorship is falling down -- you can see it happening now in Africa -- it creates circumstances that are unstable. And whenever circumstances are unstable, organised crime flourishes.

The novel also examines the fate of Estonia under Soviet occupation. Your mother is Estonian, isn't she?
Yes, and we went back to Estonia as often as possible. My father, who is Finnish, was working in the Soviet Union, so we also travelled to see him. My mother had left Estonia for Finland in 1976. When I think about my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, I think about all the fantasies and dreams people like my mother had about the better future they thought was waiting for them in the west.

What was the relationship like between Finland and Estonia back then?
Difficult. For example, in Oslo there was an immigrant refugee government of independent Estonia through the whole Soviet period. The refugees there published Estonian newspapers; they had their own print houses, they had Estonian schools. In Finland there was nothing like that, because Finland had to be friendly with the Soviet Union, and Estonia was a part of the USSR.

How does it feel to be claimed by Estonians as one of their own? You were decorated by the Estonian president in 2010.
It's nice, of course. I meet a lot of Estonian readers who often ask, "Wouldn't you like to write in Estonian?" But that's not likely to happen.

You've written about Estonia's past. Do you think you might do the same for Finland?
I might, though it's quite a complex thing -- especially when you think of the way people talk at the moment about "Finlandisation". There are many who insist it had no effect at all, and then those who know the reality. Many Finns consider it quite insulting if Finland is considered to have been part of the Soviet Union once. As for politics in Finland today, I feel that we need to wait for the next generation, because those who were in power during Finlandisation are still the people who are in power today. And as long as they are the guardians of power, nothing will change. l

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire

Sofi Oksanen's "Purge" is newly published in paperback by Atlantic Books (£7.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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