Two of Europe's top younger novelists at Albright-Knox Sunday
To paraphrase then-rock critic Jon Landau writing several decades ago about a young phenom named Bruce Springsteen, I think I've read the future of European fiction and its name is Sofi Oksanen. She and acclaimed Dutch novelist Tommy Wieringa visit Buffalo Sunday afternoon to read from their work at 3 p.m. in the auditorium of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature and Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel Series. The event is free and open to the public.
The 33-year-old Oksanen's latest novel Purge (Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic) swept most of the literary awards in her home country of Finland as well as the Nordic Council Literature Prize last fall, and even in translation, it's a riveting suspense novel, a political tract about identity and estrangement, and a novel that documents the use of violence in the subjugation of generations of women across national and ethnic boundaries spanning 75 years of European history.
More importantly, it's a novel that blows the lid off of rape as political tool and human trafficking as the most shameful component of the European economy: audacious enough to suggest not only that rape is metaphor for the assertion of absolutist political power, but also that every rape is a political act -- the ultimate personal desecration and erasure of dignity and personhood. The brilliantly outspoken Oksanen is controversial in her family's adopted Finland, but no less a polarizing figure in their native Estonia and the rest of Western Europe. Given her indictment of the brutality of nearly a half-century of Soviet rule in Estonia, she hasn't inspired many fans among nationalists in Putin's Russia either.
Oksanen's two Estonian women protagonists--the widowed Aliide Truu and the young sex-trafficking ring escapee Zara -- share much, much more than their shared victimhood, as the novel, in its hopscotching narrative style reveals. Originally conceived as a drama -- Oksanen is a former dramaturgy student of the Finnish Theatre Academy -- the novel has a staged, episodic quality to it she developed in her two highly praised earlier novels Stalin's Cows (2003) and Baby Jane (2005). Typical of her expository narrative technique are her long chapter titles like "Every Clink of the Knife Rings Mockingly"and "Zara Puts on a Red Leather Skirt and Learns Some Manners."
Tommy Wieringa's best-selling, Halewijin Prize-winning novel Joe Speedboat (Black Cat, and imprint of Grove/Atlantic) employs a similarly episodic approach in its dynamic, coming-of-age story about the adventures and misadventures of a mute and nearly paralyzed (except for his right arm) young man and his visionary, charismatic best friend and sidekick set in the towns of rural Holland.
The novel has been compared John Irving's The World According to Garp (albeit set in the Dutch lowlands) and while cross-cultural comparisons are often misguided, one can certainly see why. Like Irving, Wieringa has a penchant for oversized characters and unlikely plot twists, a tendency toward a kind of finely tuned hyperrealism, and the gift of writing enormously entertaining, if slightly stylized prose.