Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 22, 2012

New Finnish Grammar (2000), by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry

New Finnish Grammar 1It’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 disjoint 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 expats 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 up Sampa 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 Sampo,  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
ISBN: 9781903517949

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


  1. Did you splash out for a Kindle edition? This would be number fifteen for me, but sadly the library has let me down so far :( Sounds very interesting too…


    • Yes, I did, the only one I’ve had to buy so far, thank goodness. I don’t like buying from That Big Corporation that treats its employees so badly, (Did you read about that in The Age?!) but I didn’t want to let Stu down, and I knew there were 4 people ahead of me at the library. (One of them is probably you LOL).


      • The library didn’t actually have a copy! I requested a purchase, but it’s been in progress forever. I then requested an inter-library one (through the Librarylink site) as there were a couple of copies elsewhere, but I haven’t heard anything back :(


        • I got nearly all of mine through inter-library loan as well, and pretty quickly too with the exception of New Finnish Grammar. To be honest, I was rather pleased to see that they were as available as they were and that there was demand for them. It shows there are plenty of people out there who want to read interesting stuff and not just the books that get all the space in the print media.
          I could lend you my Kindle, if you like, you could come and pick it up from me at work?


          • Thanks for the offer – we’ll see if the library manages to save their reputation in the next couple of weeks ;)

            Like you though, I’m just about ready to move onto something else after all this IFFP focus. Lots of books waiting to be read..


  2. Oh I do so want to read this book! It’s been on my wishlist for a long time.

    I’m of Finnish ancestry and besides the subject matter kind of grabs my attention. Also, I really enjoy translated novels because they seem more likely to expand my awareness of other cultural stuff.


    • Becky, I’m sure you’d love it…I suppose there aren’t many books around that are of Finnish origin?
      I certainly found I learned a lot, especially about the war years in Finland.


  3. I did like this book, but as I said in my review, I think I admired rather than adored it. I found it a little dry in places. That said, I can entirely understand why it’s been so positively reviewed, both by yourself and others. It raises some fascinating questions about identity, to which you allude. It’s not my favourite on the IFFP list by any means, but that said, I’d be perfectly happy if it won.


    • Have you got a favourite for the prize, Mark? I don’t mean a punter’s favourite, I mean your own.


  4. Yes, From The Mouth Of The Whale. I loved it. I actually put the [official] final six into three categories: Whale and Prague, either of which I’d be delighted to see win; Ding and NFG, both of which I think would be perfectly worthy winners, and Blooms and Alice, neither of which I care for much at all. And you..?


    • Mark, I’m really glad I don’t have to choose! I’m with you all the way with your choices, except that I did like Blooms of Darkness, and I feel kind of uneasy about Alice. I keep wondering if there was something I missed, in my estimation of it…


  5. I loved this I think it has to be favourite to win along side Sjon ,He has two more out this year dedalus seem to have got Judith to translate a few at once ,I hope there as good as this as I loved it .The feel of seeing a man feeling for who he is as well as where he belongs is different ,all the best stu


    • It certainly ticks all the boxes: something different, compelling to read, and a big issue for contemporary times as well.
      And I learned such interesting stuff about Finland too!


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