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Sofi Oksanen received Budapest Grand Prize

International Book Festival of Budapest took place 24– 27 April 2014. The Guest of Honor was Sofi Oksanen and at the festival she was awarded the Budapest Grand Prize, as the first Finnish and second female author ever to receive the prize.

Budapest Grand Prize is a literary award presented each year to one of the most outstanding authors of contemporary world literature. It has previously been granted toImre Kertész, Salman Rushdie, Sławomir Mrożek, Mario Vargas Llosa, Günter Grass, Jorge Semprún, Umberto Eco, Bret Easton Ellis, Ljudmila Ulickaja, Amos Oz, Per Olov Enquist and Michel Houellebecq.

"According to the jury I have a large readership in Hungary, and I'm considered an emblematic author there. Naturally, this award is heart-warming," said Sofi Oksanen after hearing the news. 

The Jury recognizes Oksanen as a world-known author honored by numerous international prizes, and it describes her work in the following way: "The history of Soviet-occupied Estonia, surviving the various hardships of the era, is strongly present in her body of work, in addition to the complex relations to neighboring Finland, which experienced its own difficulties with the Soviet Union. Moreover, thethemes in her work include gender issues and violence against women."

In Hungary Oksanen is published by Scolar Kiadó. The Hungarian publication of her latest novel, When the Doves Disappeared, was coincided with the Budapest Book Festival. All her previous novels have been translated into Hungarian: Stalin's Cows (Sztálin tehenei) in 2011 followed by Baby Jane (Baby Jane) in 2012. Purge (Tisztogatás 2010) has also been staged atCsiky Gergely Theatre in Kaposvár in 2011.

The festival is organized by the Hungarian Publishers' and Booksellers' Association in co-operation with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The prize is granted by the Hungarian Publishers' and Booksellers' Association and the Local Government of the Capital Budapest.

Pictures for press

The festival's website in English

The website of Scolar Publishing

Pictures:

1. Sofi Oksanen in the Budapest Grand Prize ceremonies with István Tarlós, the Mayor of Budapest, Peter Laszlo Zentai, the director of HPBA and András Sándor Kocsis, the president of HPBA.

2. Sofi Oksanen was interviewed just before ceremonies by Hungarian poet and author Nora Winkler.

The following speech by Krisztina Tóth was held for Sofi Oksanen's honor in the ceremonies in Budapest International Book Festival.

Krisztina Tóth: Great nationwide family constellation

Bert Hellinger’s family constellation – a method which assumes that the events of our individual lives are formed in close connection with the fate of our predecessors and family; that relations denied in the past, faults committed and hushed up influence our actions and define our fate – is considered by many to be pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus. There are no measurable results, hair-splitters say, and there is no experimentally verifiable evidence. Family constellation therapy, however, works beyond question, even if its efficiency is only proven by individual accounts. The rituality of the family constellation and the alleged field of force Rupert Sheldrake calls the morphogenetic field often provokes fierce repulsion in the sober-minded who think in terms of measurable data and figures. Just like literature: the big institutionalised delusion. 

How many times have I heard – especially from technical people – that the appreciation of a literary work is merely subjective and that it is impossible to verify objectively why a given work has an effect on us? There are books, however, that have a very strong effect on many, many people. These stories talk about things that are in connection with the core of our lives. They shake us, upset us and compel us to do some soul-searching. Because good literature, one must acknowledge, asks questions rather than giving answers, makes you unsure rather than comforting you. And even if it gives you some kind of support, it does so by asking questions about the essence. Stalin’s Cows by Sofi Oksanen is like that. On the surface, i.e. the level of the story verging on the present, the book is about the eating disorders of a young woman. In a broader context, it is about family; in an even broader context, it is about a country and in a yet broader context, it is about history itself which this young woman is trying to regurgitate from the very depths of her being. Katerina, the Estonian mother of the story, gets married in Finland and spends her entire remaining life staggering, as a split soul, between two cultures and two worlds. Her child is born to this split existence: nothing is what it seems in the environment of this little girl. Her mother, who should give her safety, keeps involuntarily changing between her Estonian and Finnish self. She must be cautious in Helsinki but even more cautious in Tallin. Her father keeps on cheating and lying, and the child gradually grows into this multilayered, intricate lie – and she is ashamed of herself. She is ashamed of who she is, the creature conceived in this endless lie, and she tries to purify herself by continuously feeding her body and then making it vomit. Falseness, however, is so deeply buried in her bones that it cannot be regurgitated with food. The glass-boned woman saying farewell at the end of the novel is a metaphor: if we take away the lies in our life, our uncertain, fragile legs may not even be able to support us.

Hungarian readers, of course, know nothing about these lies buried in bones. How could they? They know nothing about double-talk, about clothes smuggled through borders or about the shiny but cheap cult objects brought from the West in the last years of Communism that whipped up so much desire. They know nothing about the pathetic, eroded female bodies full of make-up, they know nothing about men’s carousals to suppress all internal voices with external noise and the frail and desperate effort to make our short and only life similar to some beautiful and good foreign life we can only have the appearances of – if we are very lucky. And no matter how hard we tried, we did not succeed. Of course we did not succeed, says Oksanen, because she is a good writer: she does not flatter her readers with false hopes. 

Baby Jane also takes place in Helsinki, and the heroine is also a foreigner. Oksanen’s protagonists always wander about as foreigners, everywhere: the heroine of Stalin’s Cows does so because she is half Estonian, the one of Baby Jane does so because, even if she finds a partner, she comes and goes in her environment, the night life of the gay and the lesbian, as somebody who has just been dropped down onto the site of a film shoot and who does not yet know her role well. This foreignness usually has some kind of external explanation (alienation, sexual orientation, exclusion) in Oksanen’s works but this external explanation is never the reason itself. The reason is deeper and unchangeable. What we experience while reading her novels is the feeling that we all are hopelessly foreign in our own time and environment, and however hard we try to live our part, this kind of living gradually leads to dying. 

Kormi, the charming and tough woman closed in by her illness becomes more and more isolated and her love, by choosing a foreign life in a foreign environment with a foreign man, also commits suicide in fact, only in a less spectacular way. She kills her own self, she dies together with her love and chooses a miserable existence. 

The most successful, and probably most powerful, book of the author is Purge, which confronts us with our past and with ourselves in an even more relentless way, if that is possible. Everybody is a felon and a victim in one. The young Estonian girl is running away from terrible suffering and when she arrives in the place of her childhood – this is the opening scene of the novel, by the way – all the filth of an even more terrible past is revealed to the reader. Oksanen keeps changing the times and scenes of the plot but in the course of time, from the bits of the stories, fragments of the distant and near past start to take shape. Blank spots, of course, still remain just as the feeling that all this may have happened to us, here, to our body still remains. We live the horror and would like to purify ourselves in the catharsis but it does not work somehow. A layer remains on our skin to continue to torment us. 

But let us get rid of this bad feeling, because all this happened in the far-away land of Estonia, moreover, it was a long time ago and the deeds of horror were committed by Russian invaders. We, however, are celebrating here! Welcome, Sofi Oksanen, in a country that – thank you very much – has long been purified, that does not have undigested and hushed up sins any more, that does not have an obscure and stinkingly rotten past that would hatch, as the piece of meat in the novel, the grubs of the sins of old; in a country that does not have anything to do with domestic violence and violence against women in general, neither with prostitution nor exclusion; a country that has long and conscientiously worked through, and closed, the issue of secret agents, where all this is mere literature, a bunch of made-up stories, a game, hocus-pocus, just like a family constellation, for example. So I salute Sofi Oksanen, and also Éva Pap and Laura Bába who translated her works into Hungarian, and I salute her publishers, Scolar and I also salute the dear readers. I welcome everybody at the bright and fresh Spring Book Festival that smells of paper which is hot off the press, the Book Festival of this carefree and long purified city where even literature is doing better and better.