Alibi V.24 No.15 • April 9-15, 2015 

Book Review

The Rebel, the Heart and the Liar

When the Doves Disappeared

Sofi Oksanen, trans. Lola Rogers
Knopf
hardcover
historical fiction
$25.95

Picture this: “A woman gets into a car, the light comes on for a few private moments, darkens the day in the street, becomes a lighthouse in a black sea, and the two people inside don't even notice it, because they don't see the world around them, they don't need it, they illuminate each other.” Romantic, right?

Now make that man a Nazi and the woman married to another man. Does it change how you feel? Is it still a beautiful moment between two humans? This odd, contrary feeling in your stomach lasts throughout the book.

Contrary to what the cover tells you, When the Doves Disappeared centers on Juudit: Estonian, woman, wife, rebel and the lover of a Nazi SS Haupsturmführer. The story surrounds Juudit's life over the span of 25 chaotic and terrifying years that include the Russian Civil War, WWII and the rise of the USSR. Her life is molded by two men who orbit her life—Edgar, her estranged and secretive husband, and Roland, his cousin—coming and going, forever underestimating her depth.

Sofi Oksanen displays a tragically beautiful understanding of human character, motivation and desire. She takes a woman who could simply be labeled a willfully ignorant, selfish Nazi mistress and plumbs her depths, never in words but through deeds, impulses, needs and observations. No one is just one thing.

While Nazis are undeniably history’s villains, you won’t find simple stereotypes here. Nor will you find hackneyed tropes like faithful war wives and proud rebel heroes. Rather, author Sofi Oksanen displays a tragically beautiful understanding of human character, motivation and desire. She takes a woman who could simply be labeled a willfully ignorant, selfish Nazi mistress and plumbs her depths, never in words but through deeds, impulses, needs and observations. No one is just one thing, everyone changes, and perceptions of others can literally transform in the blink of an eye. Oksanen signals such remarkable shifts with lush, sensory descriptions, as on one particular night that alters everything. Juudit morphs in a single moment from reeking of “her Baltic baron” to smelling like Estonia, “like autumn, like raindrops on a ripe apple” as if she were the “land's own bride” made to live and die there. It's these breakthroughs in characters' perceptions that show more than they realize, both of themselves and others. The writing is beautiful, even poetic at times, and high praise is due to Lola Rogers for her translation from the Finnish.

In the end, this is a novel based more in reality—with all its dumb luck and tragic outcomes—than happily-ever-after fantasy.

The biggest obstacle in this book is understanding the place, time and history. Considering it was originally published in Finland, it's understandable that the original audience would be much more familiar with Ain-Ervin Mere, the Forest Brothers, the events at Klooga and the many power struggles between Bolsheviks, Nazis, Estonian Nationalists and the Soviet Union. As a native Burqueña, educated by good ol' APS, I found myself to be embarrassingly ignorant of the history of Eastern Europe during the last century. Sure, Anastasia died and Hitler learned the age-old lesson of not going to war with Mother Russia in winter, but apparently a lot more was happening. Unless you're a history buff, be prepared to spend an hour or two on Wikipedia looking up Soviet politics, Estonian independence and Wehrmacht military titles. Granted, any lack of historical knowledge on the reader's part is no fault of the author, but a few explanations for the international audience would've been handy.

In the end, this is a novel based more in reality—with all its dumb luck and tragic outcomes—than happily-ever-after fantasy. It's key to stay grounded in the harshness of the fear, destruction, and desperation of the time period to sympathize with the characters and understand the frightening decisions they had to make—where principles, pride and need were bitterly tangible in every choice. Don't be too harsh on yourself if you find yourself liking a Nazi and despising a man who, along with everyone else in the world, just tries to survive and make a life for himself in an untrusting and fickle society. Move past the clichés about family, love and war, and see the humanity—both noble and treacherous—in everyone: heroes, villains, liars and rebels.