Thursday, 10 December 2015

WHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED by Sofi Oksanen

Here is a book about Estonia during the second world war. First question: where is Estonia? It’s one of these little countries, always about to be gobbled up by larger powers, and this is pretty much what their war was about. They support the Germans, because they don’t want to be subsumed by Russia, and it’s interesting to read for once a book in which the Germans are the heroes. It’s all extraordinarily Eastern European. Enjoy this:
Maybe life was so fragile and meaningless that there was no need to add to their troubles. There was headcheese to be made, lard to be rendered; there were intestines to be salted for next year’s sausage – so much work to do, all to maintain the fragile lives of others.
I love it! The despair, the disgusting food, it’s everything you want from that part of the world.

The story is about a family in which one cousin fights for Estonian independence (does not go well) while the other strategically flip-flops from Communism to Fascism, depending on who is winning (goes very well). It’s very well written, and very engaging, but left me with sort of a bad taste in my mouth, as the traitor/pragmatist succeeds at every turn, with the final wages of sin for him being a nice lifestyle (which in this context is access to restricted shops, where the mincemeat is not mixed with rat). I guess in fiction we expect the triumph of the underdog; I found it upsetting to see the underdog executed.

Oksanen is a gifted writer, though for me her style is sometimes overblown. Here is a good sample, which moves from the ridiculous to the sublime:
The stars sifted through the clouds into her eyes, and her eyes were like forest doves bathed in milk. Darkness covered my awkwardness; I didn’t open my mouth. Tender feelings didn’t fit the time. I put my hand on her neck and wrapped a curled wisp of her hair around my finger. Her neck was soft, like peacetime.

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