Tag Archives: Sofi Oksanen

Sofi Oksanen, Quand les colombes disparurent (When The Doves Disappeared)

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This book describes the survival strategies adopted by various characters as they grapple with the historical events they cannot influence. There is the fighter who resists situations he disagrees with and tries to help those who want to flee from it, there is the chameleon who tries to align with the forces at play and goes as far as changing his name (and beliefs!) and find all sorts of ways to justify his own behavior. Their the pretty woman who is sent to seduce a German officer and falls in love with another and imagines that is her ticket to safety, freedom and happiness and gets in the end terribly disappointed.

Some people have described this book as complex or difficult. It is only so if you are not accustomed to multiple voices and nonlinear timelines… And the design of the chapter headings make it easier to keep track by stating the location and year of the action that takes place in it. Two of the voices belong to brothers with widely differing political leanings, Roland and Edgar, and the third to Edgar’s wife Juudit. There might be a complication due to the fact that some characters change names depending on the political situation or to go into hiding. Then, you initially have to guess who’s who but that rapidly becomes clear.

I have seen in a newspaper article somewhere (just don’t remember where) that Oksanen wanted to write a Judith story. Well, I had to look up that biblical reference to see what she meant. So, Judith was a beautiful, intelligent and cunning woman who seduces a ruthless general and decapitates him in his sleep (that might be an oversimplification of what happens in the Book of Judith, but that’s have to do here). The Juudit of Oksanen’s story is not so cunning and while she gets into the bedroom, she ends up finding it way too comfortable to leave…

One thing that stuck me was the description of Juudit worrying about being seen at her mother’s old apartment being reminiscent of the scene where Raskolnikov is stuck in the apartment of the woman is murdered in Crime and Punishment. There is similar description of fear of repercussions and thinking about how to get out of that tough spot. I wonder is that was on purpose.

Overall, this was quite a compelling read. I will be looking forward to more books from Sofi Oksanen. See previous reviews here and here.

Reference:

Oksanen, Sofi. Quand les colombes disparurent. Collection « La cosmopolite ». Stock, 2013. (originally published in Finnish in 2012)

Sunday Night Ramblings: After a binge of Giller Prize short-listed books, what next?

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The past two weeks featured reading focused in the Giller Prize short list. I managed to read Lisa Moore’s Caught and Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again because the final gala and I finished Craig Davidson’s Cataract City the week after. I did buy the rest of the short list, but it is actually my husband’s Christmas present so I will have to be a bit patient and give him a chance to read Lynn Coady and Dan Vyleta before I can get my hands on those books. And don’t worry, he does not read my blog so it’s unlikely he will find out.

As I was travelling last week and had to endure some business-travel-related boredom and need to escape, I bought the lastest Robin Cook novel, Nano. I thought that might worth a read, an exciting mystery featuring cutting-edge technology… except I have read way too much of that genre in my life and I really did not find anything new in this book. In fact, much of the plot and characters seemed like a transposition of Coma, the book that contributed to putting Robin Cook on the map. While I added some words to my vocabulary, such as microbivores and respirocytes, the weak plot and even weaker characters (the womanizing boss!) were really disappointing. This does not mean I will never ever buy another Robin Cook every again… but it might take a while.

One author I have not read much is Tom Clancy. Given he died recently, his name has come back to my attention. I did love The Hunt for Red October and I remember reading some of it on a quiet day when I was temping for an air-conditioning company back when I was eighteen. I do have a question though: Do you have to read the Jack Ryan novels in order and can one start with the lastest novel published in 2012? The nerd in me says “better read in the right order”…

In any case, I did go back this weekend to the novel I was reading before the Giller called for my attention. So my head is back in Estonia with Sofi Oksanen and Lorsque les colombes disparurent. The question that comes to me right now, as I am writing, is why the title talks about doves (“colombes” means doves) when the German officers keep eating pigeons in fancy restaurants in Tallin. Maybe it’s because the doves have all gone… literally as birds and source of food, as well as symbols of peace. This book is certainly fascinating, with its exploration of the intricacies of life under successive totalitarian regimes and the struggles to survive of ordinary citizens, resistance fighters and collaborators.

I was also in the middle of P.O. Enquist’s Hess, about Rudolf Hess, which fits in nicely thematically with the Sofi Oksanen book. But there are some many more interesting books awaiting me on the shelves, in addition to work-related books about learning, leadership, change management and diversity… My, oh my, so much choice…

And the Montreal book fair will be on this week and I plan to go at least on Friday, but who knows… I might end up spending some of next weekend there as well.

Monday Night Ramblings: Novels and Journals

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I finally started Sofi Oksanen’s Quand les colombres disparurent, her fourth novel and the third one translated in French. Similarly to the other two, it is in part set in Estonia and chronicles the lives of ordinary people dealing with extraordinarily difficult life circumstances.

I have also started Hess by Per Olov Enquist which is so far rather a difficult read. It is based on the life of the Nazi Rudolf Hess. So both novels are somewhat political.

I am finally at the half-way mark in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, after over 15 hours of reading. That is quite a large book… The heroine, Emilie St. Aubert, is still in the clutches of her uncle, Mr. Montoni, a virtual prisoner at Castle Udolpho in the Appenines. The mystery is quite thick at this point. We don’t know what Montoni is up to, besides trying to scare his wife, Emily’s aunt, into letting all her wealth come into his possession. We have seen earlier that he squandered his whole fortune gambling, but at Castle Udolpho, he seems to be up to something rather more sinister, given the company he keeps. Emily also feels threatened by his behavior and fears for her life. The castle also scares her: mysterious passageways, strange guests, unexplainable noises in the night… Many things are causing to freeze in place or collapse  completely. The author describes Emilie’s state of mind and its many variations in quite a lot of detail.

One of the most fascinating reads I got into lately is the special summer issue of the French magazine Books about journals (http://www.books.fr/archives/numero-45/). It features reviews of a number of journals by people who were not necessarily famous yet no less interesting observers of life around them. The journals reviewed vary in terms of historical period (Antiquity to our times) and locations (England, Germany, Japan, China, Russia, United States, etc.). Some people only wrote a journal at critical times in their lives, while for others it was a life-long endeavour. I was surprised by the extent to which some people tried to ensure the privacy of their writings by encoding some of it. Why would someone feel compelled to write down details of their lives and opinions only to conceal them? Given that the act of writing can very well assist in clarifying one’s thoughts, it may be how these people made sense of their own actions and of the events in their lives and may still not have wanted to have others read them. Certainly some have had journals discovered and seized and were punished for their contents.

Many novels feature fictional journal extracts or are themselves journal. This is the case with the Sofi Oksanen novel. A journal was a significant part of Lars Gustafson’s Death of the Beekeeper. What other novels do you know of where that is the case?

 

Sofi Oksanen, Les vaches de Staline (Staline’s Cows)

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Ce livre n’est devenu disponible en traduction française qu’après le grand succès de Purge et ne l’est toujours pas en anglais. Tout comme Purge, ce livre se passe en partie en Estonie et l’histoire récente de ce pays se pose en trame de fond au récit. Katariina, un des personnages principaux, est une ingénieure estonienne qui épouse un Finlandais et émigre en Finlande. Ils ont une fille, Anna, qui a une relation trouble avec ses origines, avec la Finlande et sa culture, ainsi qu’avec la nourriture. On pourrait ainsi dire qu’Anna est une personne troublée dont les problèmes envahissants l’empêchent d’avoir des relations saines avec autrui.

L’obsession de Katariina pour la gestion des apparences, un moyen de protection sûr dans un régime totalitaire où rien ne peut aller à l’encontre des attentes du régime sans poser problème, s’est transmuté en boulimie-anorexie chez sa fille Anna qui a une obsession d’avoir une apparence qu’elle considère idéale à un poids qu’elle considère idéal. En même temps, elle veut cacher le fait qu’elle se fait vomir et les divers stratagèmes qu’elle emploie pour dissimuler cette pratique relève parfois de la farce.

Ce livre foisonne de lignes narratives et je doute qu’une seule lecture permette de toutes les saisir et de voir les relations entre elles. Pourquoi le père est-il toujours absent et pourquoi semble-t-il avoir une autre vie à Moscou? Pourquoi la mère accepte-t-elle cette situation? Elle préfère peut-être ne pas avoir le père dans les jambes? L’auteure essaie-t-elle de souligner l’immense solitude de chacun des personnages?

Le récit passe maintes fois de la période des années 40 (l’enfance de Katariina), au milieu des années 70 (la rencontre des parents) et un présent où Anna est une jeune adulte. Ces passages mettent en évidence le lien entre les dissimulations des proches de Katariina durant de l’ère soviétique, l’étanchéité de la cellule familiale d’Anna en Finlande où ils ont peu de contact avec les Finlandais et se méfient et se tiennent à l’écart de la communauté estonienne, et l’isolement dans lequel les troubles alimentaires poussent Anna tout au long de sa vie.

Dans la troisième partie du livre, Anna a un amant qu’elle appelle « son petit troll »… devant qui elle ne dissimule rien et à qui elle révèle tout. Cet état libérateur lui permet de mieux jouir de la vie; elle sent qu’elle est arrivée à destination.

 

Référence

Oksanen, Sofi. Les vaches de Staline. Éditions Stock, 2011. (originalement publié en finnois en 2003)

Tuesday Night Ramblings: I Am Not Being A Good Reader

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Being of a slightly competitive nature, I like to be “good” at what I do. Now, what does that mean when it comes to reading? Well… we could take into consideration how fast one reads, what one reads (something meaningful and challenging?), reading thoughtfully (engaging the text and learning from it?), and by extension, writing interesting blog posts about said books. I am having trouble concentrating on reading after finishing Madd Addam, maybe because of the focus I put on this book when I read it. It is just hard to get into something else heartily enough to read fast.

But who am I kidding, does anybody really care? Shouldn’t I just concentrate about having fun reading, learning something interesting by reading, enjoying writing about the books I read just for the sake of moving my fingers over the keyboard and seeing the words appear on the screen, having fun thinking as I write?

And enough navelgazing for now… Better concentrate on “novel” gazing. OK, bad pun…

I am currently about two thirds of the way through a book originally published in 2003 by Sofi Oksanen called “Stalin’s Cows” (in French, Les vaches de Staline). It appears in French translation in 2011 following the success of Purge. It does not seem to exist in English translation. Similarly to Purge, the recent history of Estonia features prominently in this book, but so does the issue of eating disorders, an issue that the author reportedly has struggled with. Other themes of importance include: Soviet society, Soviet occupation of Estonia, immigration, ethnic identity, handling difference in a mixed couple, being a child of a mixed couple, maintaining relationships with relatives in the home country, etc. A very rich book. I highly recommend it and I am already looking forward to the next one, Quand les colombes disparurent (“When the doves disappeared”), already waiting for me at home.

I am also about 30% through Mrs. Radcliffe’s book The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I said I would read after I was done with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey which was a parody of the gothic genre. This is a very, very long novel which tells in details of the trials and tribulations of a young French woman, who’s aunt becomes her guardian after her father’s death. The aunt’s focus on getting her a wealthy husband (not a totally disinterested end) drags her into several uncomfortable situations and highlights the dire powerlessness of women in the years in which the story is set (late 18th century). I have yet to come to the part of the book which features the famous castle of Udolpho and so far, there isn’t much that is overtly gothic about this novel.

I am also travelling with some work-related reading: one book about the system approach to performance improvement, and a new edition of a Quebec book about the management of learning and development. Gotta try to keep up with the lit in that area somehow…

 

References

Oksanen, Sofi. Purge. Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic Inc., New York, NY, 2010. (originally published in Finnish in 2008)

Oksanen, Sofi. Les vaches de Staline. Éditions Stock, 2011. (originally published in Finnish in 2003)

Oksanen, Sofi. Quand les colombes disparurent. Éditions Stock, 2013. (originally published in Finnish in 2012).

Radcliffe, Ann Ward. The Mysteries of Udolpho.  (as published in Project Gutenberg, originally published in 4 volumes in 1794)

Sofi Oksanen, Purge

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Set in Estonia through the whole period that saw the German occupation, the Soviet occupation and the return to independence, this novel tells the story of two sisters from a small village who only try to survive the difficult circumstances of their lives. The eldest, Ingel, marries Hans for love. Aliide, also in love with Hans, has to share their life on the family farm until she marries herself. Her marriage is not based on love, but on the need for protection and survival and her husband is a Party man. At the beginning of the Soviet occupation, Hans goes into hiding supported by his wife and sister in law.

Much of the story is told from Aliide’s point of view. While she seems to be a trustworthy narrator, we eventually come to suspect that her version of the facts may not be entirely truthful. She claims to be innocent, unaware of and unaffected by politics and driven by her love of Hans and need for her own survival. It seems, based on later statements, that she may have had more of a hand in the removal of both her sister and her young niece to the Soviet Union.

The narration from Aliide’s point of view is interspaced with entries from Hans’ journal. A third point of view is prominent throughout the novel: that of Zara, Aliide’s great-niece, who seeks to escape from criminals who had taken her from her home in Vladivostok to work in Germany where she was forced into prostitution.

At the end of the novel, the tone changes and we find ourselves reading secret service reports into the behaviors of Hand, Aliide and Ingel, as well as Aliide’s husband Martin and a few tantalizing tidbits shed new lights on information previously revealed or hinted at… and some people are not what they seemed to be.

A great read, with a complex story, set in a part of the world I hardly know about.

 

References:

Oksanen, Sofi, Purge, Black Cat Grove/Atlantic, New York, 2010. (originally published in Finnish in 2008)