Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book discussion club x 2

Well, the one meeting never seems to be taking place, we've had to postpone and cancel due to illness and what-have-you, but the other one ticks right on ahead like a fabulous old railway station clock. For the former we read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, a book I've been wanting to read for years and plugged hard for for that reason and because I was sure I already owned it ha ha ha. Only to come home that night and be reminded by my husband that we gave our pristine copy away to a friend ages ago when we hadn't had time to look for a present. So we re-bought it. Re-buying should be just as well-known as a word as re-gifting is. Anway, I'm not sorry because it's a great book, more on that in a while.

For the other group, meeting tonight at our flat (fingers crossed that goes well, that Minimus cooperates and goes to sleep with no problems, that rest of family don't feel too put out etc.), we read Sofi Oksanen's Stalin's Cows. It doesn't seem to exist in English yet, but her most recent novel, Purge (Puhdistus), has been translated into several languages and is being heavily promoted, so I think it's only a matter of time. Oksanen is a sort of wonderchild, one of those authors whose themes, talent, outspokenness and appearance combine to make her a media superstar, loved and hated to the max. Finland has a small population and a tradition of homogeneity in culture and ethnicity which we here in Sweden use to explain (away) the superior results Finnish children reach in national tests compared to Swedish children. Oksanen shows a darker side of the coin, with those qualities serving to alienate people who are different, to ostracize them, to openly abuse them and take advantage of them.

The book is about Anna, and her Estonian mother who married a Finn and came to Finland in the late seventies, and her grandmother who raised two children under Stalin while her husband hid in the woods. A lot of stuff written about the book focuses on Anna's eating disorders, but this is more than a book about a girl/woman with bulimia - to me her bulimia is only interesting because it is juxtaposed with the starvation and deprivation of the war and Communism. Her grandmother struggled to feed her family, the relations in Sibiria battled starvation daily (at one point we read that the Sibirian cookery book is simple - for vegetable soup you need vegetables and water, for flour soup flour and water, for cabbage soup cabbage and water). After the war the shortages continued, with endless black market bargaining, different ways to cheat the system, constant queuing. It's three generations of eating problems, Anna is just the final stage.

I can see why this is so controversial in Finland. According to Oksanen, the Finns ignored the Estonian brother-people and dismissed them as Soviets during all the Communist years, and the Estonian women were just Russian whores. After independence the Finns flock to buy cheap alcohol and cheap prostitutes. Now the Russian whores were recognized as Estonian, but they were still whores. At age 11 Anna is approached on the ferry by a Finnish man who whispers "how much?". The Finnish men can't be trusted in this book, they visit countless prostitutes and keep cheap mistresses on the side behind the Iron curtain. (It's a brave book to write seeing as how it's inevitable that the reader will confuse Oksanen with Anna - is she saying that her own father was a cheating drunk?) Anna learns this, and also that probably all women are prostitutes who will sell themselves for a pair of tights, for food, for a life in the West maybe. "Eat up" says the mother and grandmother who remembers the war "but not too much, because you have to stay slim and attractive to get the right kind of man".

I can relate to so many things here, even though I come from a different background. Many of the emotional experiences of belonging to two cultures apply, although I never had to learn how to shut up in passport controls, how to smuggle, how to play up one side and play down or lie about the other. That paranoia was never mine - but I remember reading about it, I remember friends going to visit relations and talking about all the things they had to bring.

A wonderful writer and even though her writing is heart-breaking and has no happy endings, I'll simply have to read more. These are stories that need to be told, not just for Estonians and Finns but for everyone.

Oscar Wao is another one. For one thing, what do I know of the Dominican Republic? Nothing. It's the one next to Haiti, and most of what I know of Haiti I think I learned from Graham Greene. Fiction, that's where the history is. You can't beat this for education, the kind that makes your blood boil and the tears roll down your face. So much injustice and so much violence, and it never seems to end. And despite the book being almost entirely half in Spanish (it sometimes feels like), I understand it, because it compensates by referencing the kind of popular culture that I know about - Lord of the Rings for example. The dictator is Sauron - no matter if the rest of the sentence is in Spanish, I get it anyway. And poor Oscar, the Dominican geek - reads LOTR for comfort but the sentence "black men like half-trolls" makes him put it away. How I wish Tolkien hadn't put that in.

Wonderful story-telling, fantastic and imaginative language, hilarious, angry and heart-breaking. I'm thrilled with this. There's a lot written about it already and I'm running late now, so I'll leave off now despite the unfairness of Oscar getting one paragraph and a bare half - it's worth more and everyone should read it.

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