by Maren Schönfeld (German version), English summery by Uta Buhr
The German fairy tale “Rapunzel” – one of many tales collected by the Brothers Grimm – forms the basis of Sofi Oksanen’s new novel. Do you remember? Rapunzel, the young woman who is endowed with the most beautiful long hair imaginable which serves her secret lover as a ladder to see her in her tower on top of a castle. Generations of children and young adults all over the world were and still are enchanted by this charming and thrilling tale.
In 2017, “Norma” was published in German language under the title “Die Sache mit Norma.” The author is the daughter of a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, born and raised in Central Finland. Russian animal tales and other stories inspired her to create the post-modern figure of Norma. It goes without saying that a writer of Sofi’s stature does not merely tell us a story, but spices her novel with fine doses of feminism and social problems. Just imagine, in 2010 19 million people went on a pilgrimage to the Indian Tirupati Temple to offer their hair to the gods. As a matter of fact, the temple sells the hair very expensively to celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton as hair extensions! To make a long story short: There is not enough hair to satisfy the “need” for it worldwide. Some gangs meanwhile even go so far as to steel women’s hair by cutting it while their victims are trying to cross the street. Afterwards these gangsters chop off on their mopeds.
A brief summery of “Norma”:
Norma’s hair grows one metre within 24 hours. She always carries a pair of scissors to cut it. She wears a turban in order to hide the rapid growth of her mane. The greatest concern of Norma’s mother is to keep this secret to her for fear that it could be abused by reckless people. And not only the trade with Norma’s hair could be of interest to criminals but also babies carrying her DNA. It is a sad fact that the “trade” with surrogate mothers is a wide field for mafia clans around the globe.
Sofi Oksanen combines both subjects in her novel and tells us an extremely thrilling story. Lambert, the head of a clan, officially deals with human hair, although behind this harmless business he hides his “trade” with surrogate mothers. Anita, Norma’s mother, works in Lambert’s barber shop and supplies him with “Ukrainian” hair of the best quality imaginable, without telling anybody where her supplies come from. When Anita dies in an accident in the underground, Norma knows from the very beginning that her mother never committed suicide. In order to discover the truth of her mother’s death Norma starts working in Lambert’s barber shop and finds out what that man is doing for a living. She also discovers her own mother’s entanglement in these mafia structures. She must fear for her own life, and this not only on behalf of the origin of the “Ukrainian” hair.
But let us return to the Rapunzel leitmotif. Norma’s hair does not only generate an unnatural growth, but it has kind of life of its own. Some strands find their way out of her turban and curl up on her forehead and cheeks whenever they sense danger. Norma has the gift of smelling the life situation of other people by taking a sniff of their hair, be it any kind of disease or their near death. She does not tell people what she knows, but is suffering in silence and even risks to lose her job. Her symbiotic life with Anita has ended abruptly with her mother’s death. Thus she can keep her secret to herself while – at the same time – trying to find out what caused the death of her mother.
Contrary to “Purge” (German title “Fegefeuer) “Norma” is kind of a secretive novel. It is less outspoken than “Purge.” Sofi Oksanen is very closely observing her internal development. Some critics even call “Norma” an addictive novel, lucid, breathtaking and suspenseful. Norma, the stigmatised woman who leads a withdrawn life, does not believe that a normal relationship, a normal life is an option for her since she fears to pass on her special gift to further generations. It is her fate to share a world with those who trade in human hair and unborn life. Norma is a mythical figure but represents reality in an extremely cruel way.
Sofi Oksanen is an author and playwright, much acclaimed in the world of literature. She is actively involved in public debate and often appears in talk shows. In 2009 she won an award from the organisers of Helsinki Pride for her engagement for LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania und Russia.