Estonian literature needs Sofi Oksanen
By Sirpa Pääkkönen
"For a small country Estonia has a rich history, but the Estonians have not managed to handle it properly. The country’s independence has been too short."
The words are from Estonia author Ene Mihkelson (b. 1944) in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat in August. Mihkelson himself has depict sore spots of his country’s history, most recently the time of the "forest brothers" and the culture of informers in his novel Katkuhaud ("The plague grave").
Wandering in the same forests is Sofi Oksanen. The publication of her latest novel Kun kyyhkyset katosivat ("When the Doves Disappeared") has been a big event in Estonia as well, just like Purge.
Oksanen has received praise, and provoked controversy over her depictions of Estonia’s recent history. Ene Mihkelson gives Oksanen great credit. She says that the Finnsih-Estonian Oksanen knows how to combine the violence of the present day with history. "Oksanen is politically very wise. Her role is significant."
Considering its size, Estonia has a rich literary culture. For that reason it is very surprising that Estonia’s new generation has no authors like Oksanen who would sell well with good literature while at the same time provoking debate.
In addition to Mihkelson, Estonian authors handling historical themes include Jaan Kross, Jaan Kaplinski, Lennart Meri, Viivi Luik, and Mats Traat.
All of them represent a golden age of Estonian epic literature, which began already in the 1960s. At that time Nikita Khrushchev ushered in a time of greater freedom, which helped activate the intelligentsia of Soviet Estonia as well.
Censorship and the Soviet bureaucracy had their impact in Estonia, but at the same time a brisk debate emerged in the country’s cultural organisation and the press.
Authors were given an important and visible place in society. The literary generation of the 1960s achieved a position of authority, and literature served as a conduit of information.
Things could be read in the works of important authors which were not told through the official channels. Literature, theatre, and the Song Festival were also means of awakening national feelings.
Novels had large print runs and the appearance of new ones were eagerly-awaited events. In the 1970s, novels by Jaan Kross had editions of between 20,000 and 30,000 copies. More than 1,000 copies of poetry books by Viivi Luik were printed. This is a large number compared with the editions of poetry books today.
After the golden generation, Estonian literature continues to have a connection with society, but since Estonia became independent, the pendulum has swung to the opposite end. With free markets, all kinds of things are run through the printing presses, from light entertainment to self-help books.
"Estonia’s full turnaround toward the West in the early 1990s came as a shock to the country’s cultural life", says Professor Rein Veidemann, Professor of Culture at the University of Tallinn, who has researched Estonian literature.
A major generational change occurred in Estonian culture and media as a result of the big change. Rein Veidemann says that it resulted in a number of bitter conflicts.
"Music channels appeared on the radio, and new music magazines were established. The magazines hired young literary critics. The owners of the new publications looked down on the more experienced people because they had worked in the Soviet period. Journalists aged 45 to 50 were sacked."
In the early 1990s novels were being translated in great numbers and in a short time, and the quality was often poor. Publishing rights to entertainment books could be bought for little money, but classics were rarely translated.
"In 2011 ten books were published each week. About 25 publishing houses churn out small editions of women’s literature, soap opera books, and various types of helpful hint guides."
The most frequently-lent author in Estonian libraries is the prolific Eerik Tohvri. Another popular figure is Ira Lember, who wrote children’s books in the Soviet period, and who now writes depictions of the everyday life in Estonia. In third place in the library check-out statistics is the late British author Barbara Cartland.
One of the most important Estonian authors of the new generation is Andrus Kivirähk, whose popular novel Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barny aka November) appeared in 2000. Other important prose writers include Mehis Heinsaar and Indrek Hargla.
More than 70 Estonian authors can be found in the collections of Helsinki libraries. In the past ten years the most frequently-lent Estonian author has been Jaan Kross, who has had 16 works translated into Finnish.
Other Estonian authors with high readership at Finnish libraries include Jaan Kaplinski, Viivi Luik, Mari Saat, and Andrus Kivirähk.
Although there is a need for Sofi Oksanen in Estonia, she has been the target of criticism there as well. The renowned author Jaan Kaplinski said that Purge does not depict life in Soviet Estonia realistically. "It is an excellent detective story, but it does not depict life in Soviet Estonia as it was, just like the books of Agatha Christie do not describe life in Britain", Kaplinski says.
According to Rein Veidemann, Ene Mihkelson depicts Estonia’s traumatic history in a much more profound and realistic manner than Sofi Oksanen does in Purge.
Nevertheless, Sofi Oksanen’s version of Estonia seems to be the one that is spreading around the world.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 8.9.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
Estonian Foreign Minister weighs in in defence of Sofi Oksanen´s Purge (8.10.2010)
Foreign rights to Sofi Oksanen’s new book already sold to eight countries (24.8.2012)
Record print run planned for Sofi Oksanen´s new novel (29.5.2012)
Opera based on Sofi Oksanen novel came to Estonian composer in a dream (18.4.2012)
Sofi Oksanen official site
SIRPA PÄÄKKÖNEN / Helsingin Sanomat