It’s taken far too long for this seductive book to be translated into English, and I’m not surprised that it has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize almost as soon as it hit the shelves in the English-speaking world. (What other treasures lie in store for us, I wonder, now that at last readers can source the kind of books they like from everywhere, not just limited to what local booksellers think they might like? Publishers are starting to realise that there is a world-wide market for books in translation at last!)
Diego Marani is an Italian Eurocrat, apparently one with a sense of humour. To divert himself from his work as a linguist for the EU in Brussels, he spoofs current affairs for a Swiss newspaper using his own invented language called Europanto. He is the author of six novels, but according to Stu at Winston’s Dad, New Finnish Grammar is the only one to be translated into English. Let’s hope we see more of them soon.
New Finnish Grammar is the story of a man’s search for identity. Not the navel-gazing, coming-of-age or getting-older kind of identity that in my opinion tends to preoccupy too many authors at the expense of more significant issues, but an actual identity. He doesn’t know who he is, and in the turmoil of war, neither does anyone else.
It so happens that he is found on the quay in Trieste, with near-critical head injuries, in September 1943. The date is significant because this is when Mainland Italy was invaded by the Allies under Montgomery and the Italians signed an Armistice. Although Italy was then no longer a belligerent in the war, the Germans still occupied Trieste in the northeast near the border with Slovenia, and that is how a neurologist from Hamburg happens to be working there. (The Germans also continued to occupy other places in Italy, as all those of us who’ve read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will remember).
The injured man has a bundle of possessions which include a handkerchief with the initials S.K., and a sailor’s jacket with the name Sampo Karjalainen. And it so happens that the Hamburg doctor who attends him is himself a refugee from Finland who recognises it as a Finnish name. And so the assumption is made that the man is Finnish, Dr Friari’s nostalgic heart triumphing over the need for any more convincing evidence because he is won over by the sound of a familiar name. When the man thus identified as Sampo Karjalainen recovers sufficiently, he is repatriated to Finland where it is hoped that his memory will be prompted by familiar places and people.
The novel is constructed to mirror the way Sampo reconstructs his identity – in fragments. It’s not laboriously done, however, and it’s easy to follow. In the prologue, Dr Friari tells us that after the war he had finally returned to Finland (a place he had good reason to leave) to find Sampo, but the only trace of the man is his papers. Supplemented by his own memories, Friari then reconstructs the story that we read from an exercise book which contains diary notes interspersed with list of verbs, grammar exercises, newspaper cuttings and pages from the Helsinki phone directory. And because Dr Friari has invested so much of himself in identifying ‘Sampo’ his testimony can’t be trusted entirely. He tells us this himself, but it’s easy to forget this reminder until there’s a jarring disjoing between his observations and reactions and what he reads in the diary notes. This is especially true of Sampo’s visit to Teollisuukatu 456…
The diary traces Sampo’s horror at discovering his amnesia, his slow efforts to re-learn language and speech and the gradual return of some confidence in navigating a world that is so catastrophically unfamiliar. The author signals doubt about Dr Friari’s assumption in enough ways to keep the reader guessing and to sustain empathy with the man’s plight. It’s very cleverly done, and it emphasises how impossible it is to assume an identity in a vacuum of lost memories.
Even as I deluded myself into thinking that I could bear it, the wretchedness of not knowing who I was, was gradually building up within me and sapping my strength; slowly and firmly it was swelling to occupy the space that it deserved; for without memory, no man can live. (Ch 1 Loc 584)
In the modern world where people move from country to country either as willing ex-pats or as desperate refugees, this novel asks: how is identity formed? Language is fundamental, it is what makes us human, but what does it mean when Sampo spontaneously bursts into an Italian drinking song, that he so quickly picked up back in Trieste?
Pastor Koskela, who takes Sampa up in Helsinki, says that Finnish is unique (not to mention ‘thorny but delicate’, and difficult to learn).
The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self and may indeed no longer recognise it. This does not happen studying other languages, because other languages are merely scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs. (Ch 1 Loc 680)
What is it that could make Sampo feel that he belongs? Preparing decoy fires to deflect Russian bombing in Helsinki makes him feel less of an outsider because he is helping to protect his own people, or so it feels at the time, but the effect is transient. It is mainly music and song to which he responds, but Pastor Koskelo tries to instil the soul of a Finn with legends of the Kalevala. He explains about the origins of the name Sampo, and he reassures Samp, that he will truly be one of them when he can read this legend of the Kalevala for himself because it is ‘a revealed cosmogony, the mathematics that holds the created world in place‘ (Ch 2, Loc 893).
The right word. That’s all the difference between life and death. Memory is inseparable from words. Words draw things out of the shadows. Learn the words and you will recover your memory.
But what if Sampo is learning the wrong words? Sampo takes the advice of Dr Friari and Pastor Koskelo and devotes himself to learning Finnish,but he feels deep in his heart that his adoptive identity is a sham. Though his command of the language continues to improve, each day he has to rebuild his sense of belonging and it is always fragile.
And does learning the myths and legends of a homeland to create a sense of belonging cause more harm than good? Dr Friari, who lost his father in Finland’s Civil War and was conscripted to fight for a country not his own, has seen too many of these ‘fatherland’ myths used to whip up patriotic fervour along artificial borders.
When Sampo starts to build a relationship with the nurse Ilma, it feels risky, as if he may lose part of the self he has painfully reconstructed out of shreds. He does not want to take on the demands of another human being too, when he cannot really feel engaged with her. It isn’t possible to love without identity…
While some of the Finnish legends wore me down a bit, I think this is a super book that is on the one hand an intriguing mystery and on the other a superb meditation about language, identity, citizenship and courage. It’s going to make it very difficult to guess what might win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize indeed.
The translation by Judith Landry is flawless.
But that’s it from me for the IFFP, I might get to the rest of the longlisted books one day, but right now I want to read the rest of the Miles Franklin longlist. To see reviews by other members of the Shadow IFFP team, click here.
Author: Diego Marani
Title: New Finnish Grammar
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry
Publisher: Dedalus, 2011 (Kindle edition), first published in Italy in 2000
Fishpond: New Finnish Grammar (UK edition) or if you want to support Australian publishers bringing translated fiction to Australia the Text Publishing edition (New Finnish Grammar ) or eBook New Finnish Grammar