Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 27, 2018

When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola M Rogers #Bookreview

When the Doves DisappearedEstonia is a small country on the Gulf of Finland that was occupied by the USSR after the First World War, then during World War Two by Germany, and then reverted to Soviet Occupation after the war.  Both the USSR and Germany suppressed dissidents and operated surveillance networks to prevent insurrection by nationalists, and both of them took advantage of any individual Estonians who supported their regime to conduct covert operations.

It stands to reason that some Estonians would have welcomed the Germans as liberators, and it’s equally clear that some would have welcomed the return of the USSR.  It also stands to reason that while it would be prudent for people of ambition to take advantage of the German Occupation, that this would make life difficult when Germany lost the war and their former overlords returned.  Such is the fate of small countries in any battle between great powers, and as in other times and places it was sometimes necessary for people to change identities in order to survive if they had picked the wrong side to support.

And always, with people of ambition in this perilous position of having a past that needs to stay hidden, there will be people from the past with an axe to grind.  There is the problem of staying incognito, and the problem of managing anyone who recognises the new identity for what it really is.

This, then, is the problem that Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen has chosen for When the Doves Disappeared, set in the 1940s under the German Occupation, and then in the 1960s under the Soviets.  And it is a textbook example of an author breaking the first rule of fiction: give your characters problems, don’t give your problems to characters.

The only character who is in any way credible is Edgar, and his characterisation is problematic since he is introduced by his unhappy wife Juudit as unsatisfactory because their marriage is unconsummated.  Although the novel is coy about this, it becomes clear that Edgar is gay, but there is no authorial empathy for someone trying to negotiate a life under regimes which oppressed any kind of sexual difference with a brutality which makes the treatment of Oscar Wilde look benign by comparison.  Far from it.  This author is apparently not interested in the human rights of LGBTIQ people and this character has no redeeming features.  Edgar is an anti-hero, disloyal to his country, his family and friends, and cunning in achieving his petty ambitions.

By contrast, his cousin Roland is noble.  He is a freedom-fighter who risks his life in the cause of Estonian independence, and somewhat improbably manages to avoid capture or betrayal under either of the most efficient regimes the world has known.

There is a right side and a wrong side in this novel, but Juudit vacillates between the two.  Her ambitions don’t rise much above cigarettes, stockings and cognac but even before Stalingrad when both she and her SS lover begin to realise that the writing is on the wall for Germany, she recognises that the combination of her social status and her lack of Aryan credentials makes her unfit to be anything more than a mistress in Berlin.  If she is lucky, that is, and not just left behind to face the music as a collaborator.  Unfortunately for Juudit, she is genuinely in love with Hellmuth, and her problems are made doubly difficult by Roland, hell-bent on justice for his girl Rosalie who has died under mysterious circumstances. Juudit is in a good position, with her contacts, to funnel useful information to Roland and to help with the escape of refugees.

Edgar, rebadged as Comrade Parts under the postwar Soviets, is also in a good position to fossick around for information.  By the 1960s he is a minor apparatchik, and he has been assigned the task of writing a pro-Soviet novel which exposes Estonians who betrayed Soviet Estonia under the German Occupation.  So he gets to see otherwise classified archives which enable him to keep his own past hidden.  His problem is that he is back with Juudit who has become a loose cannon in his life.

At nearly 300 pages in this edition, When the Doves Disappeared is a bit of a slog, and it betrays the author’s unsophisticated view of human nature.  It’s a pity that the first Finnish-Estonian novel I’ve come across is a disappointment…

Author: Sofi Oksanen
Title: When the Doves Disappeared (Kun Kyyhkyset Katosivat)
Translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2015, first published 2012
ISBN: 9781782391258
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $27.99


Responses

  1. This sounded promising!

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  2. I read this a few years ago think I liked it slightly more but maybe not as much as I thought as I’ve had her latest on tbr for a good while

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  3. I’m not likely to read When the Doves Disappeared but I did want to send an appreciation Lisa for the way in which you dealt with the complex issues that are the background to this novel. The three Baltic states have a very mixed history in regard to WW Two, some of it very murky.

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  4. Suppressing dissidents and operating surveillance networks seems pretty universal these days, in Australia and elsewhere in the “free” world. Perhaps we should all read nazi/Soviet era books and see where the path Turnbull and Dutton are taking us down leads to.

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  5. Oh dear. I suspect I would find this as problematic as you so I may well avoid.

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  6. By coincidence I gave my copy of this away a few days ago having failed to get very far into it. I tried it some weeks ago, wasn’t enraptured but thought it was just I wasn’t in the mood. But when I went back to it last week it still didn’t grab me. It was the characters I couldn’t relate to at all. I’m reassured to know I didn’t miss out on something special.

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    • *pout* The internet here on Norfolk Island has swallowed two attempts at replying to your comments, so I’ll try doing them all together in one comment and keep copying and pasting till it works…
      So…
      Yes, Theresa, it did indeed sound promising, and I think that’s why I bought it. Estonia is one of those former Soviet republics that I know nothing about, so I was hoping to enjoy it.
      Ros, I suspected as much. If I were at home with better if not great internet access, I would have gone exploring on Wikipedia to find out more… there are allusions to deportations, (not just of Jews) but it’s all a bit evasive and I wondered whether they were more like the Swiss turning a blind eye, or more like the Norwegians.
      Bill, I reckon you are right, but I think that it’s the self-inflicted surveillance on Facebook and other social media that’s every bit as much of a concern. Fortunately (judging by the ads I’m currently seeing for ‘seniors socks’) I must be leading a life too boring for anyone to bother monitoring!
      Karen (Kaggsy) – I’m still angry about the characterisation of the gay character as inherently ‘slippery’. It reminded me of the days when the British intelligence services discriminated against gays on the grounds that they were at risk of blackmail – without ever doing anything to prevent them from being at risk in the first place. I have no patience with authors perpetuating such stereotypes.
      Karen – I’m not surprised by your response. I nearly flicked it myself and it took much longer to read than a book of that length should have. It does pick up a bit in the last third, but not enough to rescue it. Having said that, I wonder if it is a first (albeit flawed) attempt to interrogate this period of history in Estonia, so maybe I should cut it a little slack.

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  7. Hmmm… even though I haven’t ticked the Estonia box in my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, I’ll pass on this one (it was the ‘slog’ bit).

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