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

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism