Diego Marani is an Italian author and Eurocrat who writes novels in his spare time. Following on the heels of New Finnish Grammar (2000) which was shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award almost as soon as it was translated, The Last of the Vostyachs (first published in Italian in 2009) has been longlisted for the 2013 IFF prize, and no wonder, it is unputdownable.
The Last of the Vostyachs is good fun to read. It has a sombre beginning, but Marani has no intention of letting his central character succumb to victimhood. This novel is a spoof, a melodrama that subverts expectations and a work of comic genius. It also has some thought-provoking elements which elevate the book even further out of the ordinary.
Ivan – brought up in a Siberian gulag – has stumbled out into the snow as a free man in the wake of the demise of Soviet rule. He has lived in the gulag for 20 years as slave labour after he and his father were arrested for ‘poaching’ i.e. living in their traditional hunting lifestyle. His tribe was on the verge of extinction when this happened and when his father was shot dead in front of him, Ivan was the only one left of the Vostyachs, an ancient Siberian shamanic tribe. He is the only one left who speaks their language too, but in the brutal environment of the gulag there was no one to console the little boy and he hasn’t spoken a word since.
But when freedom so miraculously arrives 20 years later Ivan remembers enough of what we Australians call bushcraft to survive alone in the bleak landscape and joyfully, he shouts aloud, recalling his long-unspoken language. He remembers how to fashion a drum from skins too, and his sings his ancient songs, hoping that others of his tribe will come. They don’t because they are all dead. It’s a nice irony, that a Soviet gulag has preserved the life of the sole remaining Vostyach.
Marani then shifts the action to the competing agendas provoked by the re-emergence of this long-lost language. Professor Aurtora is rehearsing a speech for an upcoming conference, at which he is to pontificate about how linguistics proves his theory about the movement of ancient peoples across the north of Europe in prehistoric times. Yes, the reader is soon on the alert because for the Professor this is of more than academic interest, it has to do with his notions of racial superiority. He is not best pleased when he gets a letter from Olga, an enthusiastic Russian linguist who has discovered Ivan and intends to bring him to the same conference to support her rival theory. Hmm, thinks the reader, Ivan is a damaged human being, not a cultural specimen. But Olga – though she is kind and gentle with Ivan – clearly doesn’t share these scruples and foolishly asks the Prof for his help to collect the innocent wild man from the Helsinki railway station and mind him till she gets there too. She has ulterior motives too: she fancies the Professor. (He is very handsome, and, well, she’s a bit desperate).
So we have a villain with malice and with opportunity, and it turns out that he has plans for kidnap, seduction and triumph. He’s a very clever man, but his artful shenanigans turn into farce, the details of which I must not share or it would spoil your fun when you get hold of this book. Let’s just say that the combination of a sleazy Laplander on the make, a Russian prostitute, a vengeful ex-wife determined to reunite her ex with his smelly old dog and the entire population of the Helsinki Zoo lead to unintended consequences. There is a satisfying ending, though not the one you’re expecting.
And when you close the book, you can consider the place of vulnerable languages and the people who speak them. This is an issue of major consequence in Australia where so many indigenous languages have been lost and so many others are vulnerable. But as Anita Heiss discusses in her book Am I Black Enough for You? (my review is coming soon), the quest to rescue these vulnerable languages must be conducted with integrity. Who owns the copyright to the notes and tapes in which Olga records Ivan’s speech, the academic, or the speaker? And when linguists unpick the trails that languages leave in their transition from ancient to modern, what is lost, what is gained, and for what political purposes is the knowledge used?
The cover art is by W.H. Chong, who recently has recently been shortlisted for the 2013 APA Best Designed Cover of the Year for Murray Bail’s The Voyage. His jacket for Lloyd Jones’ Hand Me Down World was the 2011 APA winner for The Best Designed Cover of the Year. You realise just how clever this design is when you have finished the book.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Jury. To view other reviews of this and other nominations please click here or on the IFFP graphic.
Author: Diego Marani
Title: The Last of the Vostyachs
Publisher: Text Publishing, April 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Fishpond: The Last of the Vostyachs
Or direct from Text Publishing, including as an eBook