March 26, 2012 by markstani
There’s an awful lot to admire about New Finnish Grammar, from the ambition of its author, Diego Marani, to the bravery of British boutique publisher Dedalus in picking it for English translation. They have reaped the rewards of that bravery, with the book almost universally acclaimed in the media, and longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The question is, though, whether this is a book to admire rather than adore.
Translated from Italian by Judith Landry, ‘New Finnish Grammar’ tells the story of a sailor found seriously injured on the quayside in Trieste towards the tail-end of the Second World War. He has lost both his memory and his language, and carries no identifying documents. Taken in by a passing Finnish doctor, Petri Friari, the pair struggle to rebuild his identity: Friari convinces himself the man is also Finnish, on account of a name-tag found in his jumper, and sends him to Helsinki in the hope of reigniting some dormant memories.
Finland at the time is the subject of a tug-of-war between German and Russian forces, and as the fighting continues Friari attempts to (re)introduce his subject to the painstakingly difficult Finnish language. Friari has dark thoughts of his own, and his proselytizing on the myths and legends of his country’s past lends the book an intriguing extra dimension, even if it does feel a little bolted-on at times:
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. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here. So we had to do what we could to struggle free of defenceless matter on our own. In order to gain life, we had to suffer. First came trees, lakes, rocks, wind. Becoming human all on our own was no joke. Finnish is a solid language, slightly rounded at the sides, with narrow slits for eyes, like the houses in Helsinki, the faces of our people. It is a language whose sounds are sweetish and soft, like the flesh of the perch and trout we cook on summer evenings on the shores of lakes whose depths are covered in red algae, the colours of the hunters’ houses and the berries which bead from the bushes in summer.
The narrative takes the form of notes written by the soldier, who assumes himself to be Sampo Karjalainen, which are subsequently discovered and polished by Friari, due as much as anything to a sense of guilt on his part. It chronicles his creeping, all-pervading despair at failing to find his identity: an affliction which leaves him unable to love or to belong.
‘New Finnish Grammar’ raises some wonderfully pertinent questions about language and identity, and benefits from much careful thought. But while the soldier’s plight is undoubtedly moving, he never quite endears: the story drags though long periods where nothing much happens, leaving an over-riding impression of intelligence rather than intimacy, the cleverness of the conceit coming at the expense of a little bit of soul.
In all, ‘New Finnish Grammar’ is a worthy book, which probably deserves shortlisting, and which you would hardly wish to deny were it to win the Prize. It’s just a little tough to love.