Sunday, May 23, 2010

There but for the grace of God....

Staring at each other from across the Gulf of Finland, Finland and Estonia can seem like distant cousins. They are linguistically and culturally related, but their recent history could not be more different.

Living next door to the neighborhood bully, as Finland did during the Cold War, meant maintaining cautiously friendly relations. You know the police can't protect you from harassment so you do your best to stay on cordial terms. As the cartoonist Kari Suomalainen put it, Finland perfected 'the art of bowing to the East so carefully that it could not be considered mooning the West'.

If you want to know what could have happened to Finland during WWII look at Estonia. Estonia is Finland's "through the Looking Glass", the great What If...

Prior to coming to Finland my knowledge of Estonia was limited to one day trip in 2008 and the documentary, The Singing Revolution.

In 2008 we took the ferry from sunny, bustling Helsinki and arrived on the concrete, glass strewn shores of Talinn. While we had wonderful visit in the medieval walled city, we did miss the cheerfulness of Finland. Emerging from Soviet control, Estonia seemed a little grim. The year before our visit, Estonia had been the victim of cyber warfare apparently in retaliation for the removal of a Soviet WWII memorial. World War II is not a distant memory in Estonia

I was fortunate to see The Singing Revolution before I came to Finland. This documentary explores the fall of the Soviet Union in Estonia and the reestablishment of democracy. It is a wonderful film.

It is with this background that I read Purge by the Finnish-Estonian author, Sofi Oksanen. My review of Purge is here on the Concord Monitor web site. The details about life in Estonia before the Soviet Union and during the occupation are instructive. One character receives a call from her daughter in Finland. The daughter phones to warn her mother about Chernobyl telling her to buy iodine. The disbelieving mother has heard nothing from the Soviet controlled media, but gamely goes to the drug store for iodine only to find that other people are buying it too.

As I say in the review I read this book twice. The book is rich in detail and I will read it again when I am home. The translation is beautifully done. You experience the inside of the Estonian kitchen and seek clues to the mysteries that are hidden there.

Meet me in New York next year. We can go to the off-Broadway production!

The picture of Oksanen is by Toni Härkönen.

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