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One From the Archive: ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ by Sofi Oksanen **

When the Doves Disappeared is the second novel by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen to be translated into English. Already a bestseller in Sweden and Finland, the novel was first published in 2012, and has recently been released by Atlantic Books. Publication in twenty-eight further countries worldwide will follow. Le Monde heralds When the Doves Disappeared ‘an explosive book with a dark heart’. The book’s blurb, which calls it ‘a story of surveillance, deception, passion, and betrayal’ also alludes to the way in which Oksanen ‘brings to life both the frailty, and the resilience, of humanity under the shadow of tyranny’.

9781782391289This is ‘a chillingly suspenseful, deftly woven novel that opens up a little-known yet still controversial chapter of history: the occupation, resistance, and collaboration in Estonia during and after World War II’. Two stories, both of which highlight ‘two brutally repressive eras’ and which largely feature the same protagonists, unfold. The first takes place in 1941, when Roland and his ‘slippery cousin’ Edgar are fleeing the clutches of the Red Army, both having to make sacrifices to stay hidden; and the second in 1963, when Estonia’s Communist control has once again strengthened its hold. In this later story, Oksanen still follows Roland and Edgar, as well as Edgar’s wife, Juudit, who ‘may hold the key to uncovering the truth’.

The prologue gives immediate depth: ‘But I had to bring her [Juudit] to the safety of the forest when I heard that she’d had to flee from Tallinn… She’d been like an injured bird in the palm of my hand, weakened, her nerves feverish for weeks… The men were right… Women and children belonged at home… The noose around us was tightening and the safety of the forest was melting away’. At this time, we are told that ‘the acts of the Bolsheviks had already proved our country and our homes were under the control of barbarians’.

As well as using two differing timespans, Oksanen also blends two different narrative voices – the first person perspective of Roland, who is a soldier at the outset of the book, and the omniscient third person, which largely follows Juudit. The latter is fitting, but Oksanen’s use of the male narrative voice does not feel quite realistic; some of the turns of phrase which she makes use of do not quite sit correctly within the whole, and are not at all what one can imagine a man in Roland’s position to say. I for one cannot personally think of many men who would utter such sentences as, ‘She jumped like a nimble bird’, or ‘Her eyelids fluttered, a sound like birds’ wings on the surface of a lake’.

It seems as though Lola Rogers’ translation of the novel has been thoughtfully done on the whole, but there are a few issues within the text. From time to time, the idioms which have been used are somewhat lost in translation. The use of Americanisms also grated somewhat; words such as ‘frosting’, ‘cookie’ and ‘gotten’ feel too modern for the piece, and serve to jar one from the well-crafted period context. Whilst this is only a minor issue, it does divert attention from what should be a riveting story.

When the Doves Disappeared is well paced, and one of Oksanen’s strengths certainly lies in the way in which she builds tension. Some of her sentences in the more climactic moments are striking: ‘Spies’ eyes glittered everywhere, greedy for the gold of dead Estonians’ dust’. The scenes, too, are well built, and Oksanen’s backdrops, particularly with regard to the war-torn towns and battlefields, have been rather vividly evoked. Roland speaks of how ‘I’d made a record of every smoking ruin and unburied body I’d encountered, with either a house or a cross, even if I couldn’t find words for all those lifeless eyes, these corpses swarming with maggots’. The levels of historical context here lead one to the conclusion that the whole has been thoroughly researched, and details which she weaves in, such as Estonia’s Army uniforms and the lack of available food, further set the scene.

The World War Two story is more engaging than that which occurs in 1961, too; whilst there are items of historical interest within the latter, it does not quite make for the gripping tale which I was expecting. In terms of learning about the war and its aftermath within Estonia, When the Doves Disappeared is fascinating. In comparison to Purge, however, it feels both lacking and a touch disappointing.

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‘Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia’ by Sigrid Rausing ****

I chose Sigrid Rausing’s Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I was quite looking forward to it, particularly as I have included very little non-fiction on my list.  It seemed as though it would offer something a bit different, and whilst a lot of the themes are similar to some of the other Eastern European literature which I read before it, the very fact that it is a memoir makes it all the more fascinating.

9780802122179Between 1993 and 1994, Sigrid Rausing, a Swedish anthropology student working towards her PhD at University College London, travelled to Estonia to undertake fieldwork.  She stayed in a former Soviet Union border protection zone named Noarootsi.  She met and interviewed many different people for her project.  The book’s blurb proclaims that ‘Rausing’s conversations with the local people touched on many subjects: the economic privations of post-Soviet existence; the bewildering influx of Western products; and the Swedish background of many of their people.’  In this memoir, published twenty years after her fieldwork ended, Rausing reflects upon history and political repression, and the way in which the wider world affected the individuals whom she met.

Of the aims of her PhD, Rausing writes that she wanted to explore the themes of history and memory in Estonia: ‘I was there to study the local perception and understanding of historical events in the context of the Soviet repression and the censorship of history.’  The collective farm which she stayed and worked on folded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was ‘officially closed down in February 1993, following a vote by all the members in which just one person voted for its continued existence.’  Rausing lived and worked in the village, immersing herself as much as she was able into gatherings and the like, and trying her best to learn the very difficult Estonian language.

One gets a feel for Rausing’s surroundings almost as soon as the book begins.  She writes: ‘The rest of the villages on the peninsula – bedraggled collections of grey wooden houses with thatched rooves, sometimes propped up by shoddy white brick – were like villages all over the Soviet Union at that particular time.  Forgotten places sinking into quiet poverty.’  Rausing gives many examples of the visible changes within Estonia following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and the effects which poverty and strict rule had: ‘Haapsalu was the nearest town to my prospective field site.  It had been a spick-and-span little coastal town in the 1930s, a summer spa where people came for mineral mud baths.  Now, the baths were long since gone, the paint on the beautiful wooden houses flaking and unkempt…  The main street was wide and muddy, with many shops selling few things, and almost no cars.’

The most fascinating element of Everything is Wonderful is the way in which Rausing manages to be at once a participant and an outsider in Noarootsi.  Because of her position, she is able to gather so many different perspectives on issues affecting Estonian people.  She builds a full picture of life for those villagers and townsfolk ‘forgotten’ by the wider world, often lived in poverty: ‘The people on the collective farm had little connection either with the land or with high culture.  They just got by, day by day, enduring the uncertainty, the confusion, and the quiet fear: fear of unemployment, fear of Russia, fear of the future.’  Everything is Wonderful is stark and bleak, but very human; it is at once enlightening and harrowing.  Rausing’s memoir is a fascinating and important piece of social history, told from a position of retrospect, but working from the notes which she collected whilst on her fieldwork trip.

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Reading the World: Europe (Three)

Five final recommendations from the depths of marvellous Europe!

97800071774241. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Bosnia)
People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure. When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book. As meticulously researched as all of Brooks’ previous work, ‘People of the Book’ is a gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.’

2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
‘Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.’

3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy (Poland) 9780142003077
‘In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel.” They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.’

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (All over Europe)
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfalll Closes at Dawn As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Reves The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.’

5. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Switzerland) 9780140147476
‘Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating spinsterhood is renewed…’

 

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‘When The Doves Disappeared’ by Sofi Oksanen ***

When the Doves Disappeared is the second novel by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen to be translated into English.  Already a bestseller in Sweden and Finland, the novel was first published in 2012, and has recently been released by Atlantic Books.  Publication in twenty-eight further countries worldwide will follow.  Le Monde heralds When the Doves Disappeared ‘an explosive book with a dark heart’.  The book’s blurb, which calls it ‘a story of surveillance, deception, passion, and betrayal’ also alludes to the way in which Oksanen ‘brings to life both the frailty, and the resilience, of humanity under the shadow of tyranny’.

When the Doves Disappeared is ‘a chillingly suspenseful, deftly woven novel that opens up a little-known yet still controversial chapter of history: the occupation, resistance, and collaboration in Estonia during and after World War II’.  Two stories, both of which highlight ‘two brutally repressive eras’  and which largely feature the same protagonists, unfold.  The first takes place in 1941, when Roland and his ‘slippery cousin’ Edgar are fleeing the clutches of the Red Army, both having to make sacrifices to stay hidden; and the second in 1963, when Estonia’s Communist control has once again strengthened its hold.  In this later story, Oksanen still follows Roland and Edgar, as well as Edgar’s wife, Juudit, who ‘may hold the key to uncovering the truth’.

The prologue of When the Doves Disappeared gives immediate depth: ‘But I had to bring her [Juudit] to the safety of the forest when I heard that she’d had to flee from Tallinn…  She’d been like an injured bird in the palm of my hand, weakened, her nerves feverish for weeks…  The men were right…  Women and children belonged at home…  The noose around us was tightening and the safety of the forest was melting away’.  At this time, we are told that ‘the acts of the Bolsheviks had already proved our country and our homes were under the control of barbarians’.

As well as using two differing timespans, Oksanen also blends two different narrative voices – the first person perspective of Roland, who is a soldier at the outset of the book, and the omniscient third person, which largely follows Juudit.  The latter is fitting, but Oksanen’s use of the male narrative voice does not feel quite realistic; some of the turns of phrase which she makes use of do not quite sit correctly within the whole, and are not at all what one can imagine a man in Roland’s position to say.  I for one cannot personally think of many men who would utter such sentences as, ‘She jumped like a nimble bird’, or ‘Her eyelids fluttered, a sound like birds’ wings on the surface of a lake’.

It seems as though Lola Rogers’ translation of the novel has been thoughtfully done on the whole, but there are a few issues within the text.  From time to time, the idioms which have been used are somewhat lost in translation.  The use of Americanisms also grated somewhat; words such as ‘frosting’, ‘cookie’ and ‘gotten’ feel too modern for the piece, and serve to jar one from the well-crafted period context.  Whilst this is only a minor issue, it does divert attention from what should be a riveting story.

When the Doves Disappeared is well paced, and one of Oksanen’s strengths certainly lies in the way in which she builds tension.  Some of her sentences in the more climactic moments are striking: ‘Spies’ eyes glittered everywhere, greedy for the gold of dead Estonians’ dust’.  The scenes, too, are well built, and Oksanen’s backdrops, particularly with regard to the war-torn towns and battlefields, have been rather vividly evoked.  Roland speaks of how ‘I’d made a record of every smoking ruin and unburied body I’d encountered, with either a house or a cross, even if I couldn’t find words for all those lifeless eyes, these corpses swarming with maggots’.  The levels of historical context here lead one to the conclusion that the whole has been thoroughly researched, and details which she weaves in, such as Estonia’s Army uniforms and the lack of available food, further set the scene.

The World War Two story is more engaging than that which occurs in 1961, too; whilst there are items of historical interest within the latter, it does not quite make for the gripping tale which I was expecting.  In terms of learning about the war and its aftermath within Estonia, When the Doves Disappeared is fascinating.  In comparison to Purge, however, it feels both lacking and a touch disappointing.

Purchase from The Book Depository