Saturday 10 December 2016

Returning Estonia to light

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Medieval capital: Much of Sofi Oksanen's novel unfolds in the Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia, between 1941 and 1944
Medieval capital: Much of Sofi Oksanen's novel unfolds in the Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia, between 1941 and 1944
When the Doves Disappeared

As a child, I assumed my mother was English. Her spoken English was said to be peculiarly accented, but I never heard that. Only now, 40 years on, can I see that her "English" identity had been arrived at strenuously.

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She was born in 1929 in the Baltic republic of Estonia. For three centuries, this shadowy, sea-girt land had been part of Tsarist Russia; its independence lasted scarcely two decades following the First World War's end in 1919. Nevertheless, during that brief period, Estonia took on a new identity as a hopeful new European nation situated between the Russian and German worlds. There was little sense of the tragedy that lay ahead.

In 1947, aged 17, my mother arrived in England by way of displaced persons camps in post-Hitler Germany, her only possession a suitcase containing a photograph of her burnt Tallinn home.

In 1940, as Sofi Oksanen writes in her superb fourth novel, When the Doves Disappeared, Estonia was invaded by Stalin, and the following year by Hitler. Then, in 1944, the Soviets returned, and stayed for half a century. In this fast-paced historical novel, Oksanen explores Estonia's terrible wartime history of mass human displacement, occupation and collaboration.

Much of the action unfolds between 1941 and 1944 in the medieval capital of Tallinn.

An unscrupulous, slyly watchful Gestapo stooge called Edgar naïvely believes that Hitler will restore Estonia's national independence; the Nazis provide him with Cognac, fine clothes and other perks in return for his information on "subversives".

Corruption is no respecter of ideology. After the war, Edgar reinvents himself as a communist, churning out pro-Soviet propaganda against former "fascist nationalists". During the Nazi occupation, his wife Juudit had - dreadfully - conducted an affair with an SS-Hauptsturmführer; now she is an alcoholic, and sunk in sleazy self-denial.

Oksanen was born in 1977 to an Estonian mother and a Finnish father, and her work has - so far - been translated into more than 30 languages. Her last book, Purge (a thriller, also set in Estonia), won her numerous international awards. When the Doves Disappeared (the title refers to the occupying German soldiers who snared and ate pigeons in Tallinn) is equally good. Over it, hangs a Graham Greene-like atmosphere of human wretchedness and compromised political faith.

Humiliated and defiled by Hitler and Stalin, after the war, Estonia virtually fell off the map of Europe. Oksanen, a great post-Russian-Empire writer, has helped to return Estonia to the consciousness of the West.

Fiction

When the Doves Disapperared

Sofi Oksanen

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie

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