Things That Everybody Should Know: A Review of Sofi Oksanen’s When the Doves Disappeared
I learnt of Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen last month because I came across Luke Harding’s Guardian profile of her, written in anticipation of the UK publication of her latest novel, When the Doves Disappeared. I pre-ordered the book through the Guardian’s online store because the profile painted a portrait of a fascinating figure, and also because I am easily manipulated, I suppose. I started reading the book shortly after its English language publication earlier this month. A Finnish friend saw me reading it. “Oh, do you know her”?, I asked. He rolled his eyes. “Everybody knows Sofi Oksanen”. Which I do not doubt is true in Finland and Estonia, but is not true in the wider world, or at least was not true for me. However, as Harding’s piece pointed out, she is an international best seller and critically acclaimed and commercially successful author, which is to say that there is perhaps no reason that everybody in the world should not know Sofi Oksanen.
When the Doves Disappeared is Oksanen’s fourth novel, but her second to appear in English (her first was the very popular Purge). The plot is a bit complicated, and also a mystery, and so all I will say about it is that the story is set in Estonia and flips back and forth between the early 1940s, following Estonia’s “liberation” from the Red Army and during its subsequent occupation by Nazi Germany, and the 1960s, during its occupation by the Soviet Union. It is mostly about three people: Roland, who is a fiercely patriotic freedom fighter in the 1940s and apparently nowhere to be seen in the 1960s; Edgar, his cousin, who begrudgingly fights alongside Roland only to remake himself first as a collaborator with the Germans and then again as a Soviet apparatchik (I can tell you that and not worry that I am spoiling anything because it says as much on the back cover of the English language version of the book); and Juudit, Edgar’s profoundly unhappy wife.
The mystery is ever-evolving, the characters surprisingly full of interiority for a plot-driven novel, and the prose, at points, flies as high as the titular doves. “Everyone had his breaking point”, one character thinks, “and if nothing else destroyed the mind, time would. It would take you back to moments you didn’t want to return to, chasing after countesses and tsarinas, to memories of Lilya Brik driving the first automobile in Moscow, or the wood-gas cars in Siberia, how you had to throw stick after stick of birch in the burner, how the generator would sputter, memories of wood being chopped, fat burning, and flesh, the smell….memories that should be forgotten, that you have forgotten, until your spirit is beaten down, and it brings them back and makes them true again…” That is, to my mind, heartbreakingly beautiful. It is also, I think, true, and the reason that I am reviewing this piece of fiction for a blog dedicated to contemporary European politics.
Estonia was under Red Army occupation in the first place because it was annexed by the Soviet Union as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet “spheres of influence” in flagrant violation of international law. Western states knew that this had happened, but the Soviet Union itself did not publicly recognise the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact until 1989. (More recently than the admittance that everyone did indeed know of the Pact was Vladimir Putin’s justification of it.) And Oksanen, in the aforementioned interview, comes across as quite clearly anti-Soviet (and anti-Russian) and pro-Estonia, which she describes it as her “other homeland”. She has been critical of Finland, where she grew up, for it was there that the powers that were played nice, so to speak, with the Soviet Union by acting as though it had forgotten that Estonia was once a country on its border. And so I began the book believing that it was going to tell the tale of heroic Estonians fighting their very best fight against first Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia.
When the Doves Disappeared is not, however, a valorisation of Estonia. Or, rather, it may be a valorisation of Estonia—if there is a hero in this book, it is the dream of an independent Estonia—but it is not a justification of Estonians. It is Estonians, or some Estonians, whom Oksanen describes as pretending not to notice the horrors inflicted by the Germans against their Jewish neighbours and Estonians themselves when they knew, or could have known, and should have known, all too well. As collaborating with one regime and then another. As turning against each other. Horrible circumstances were inflicted upon the country. Some—many—did what they could to push back against them. Others—also many—did not.
To read When the Doves Disappeared is to read that there were, and are, no purely good or bad people in the 1940s or the 1960s in Estonia or anywhere else. There are only people, even the best of whom can be deeply misguided, and the worst of whom are capable of unthinkable—or, worse, wholly understandable—cruelty. But those who are most damned, if not by Oksanen’s plot, then certainly by her prose, are the people who do not acknowledge their own part in history, their own choices, their own culpability—those people who chose not to pretend that they did not know. They existed in Estonia, as they did, and do, in every other country, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Oksanen is better, not worse, for writing so.
Everybody does not know that. But everybody probably should. And everybody who reads When the Doves Disappeared certainly will. There is no reason not to.
Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.