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

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era