Eesti Elu
Improbable book review
Arvamus 15 Sep 2011 Mart PikkovEesti Elu
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New Finnish Grammar is the improbable title for an improbably entertaining novel, written in Italian and recently translated into English, where the drama revolves about a profoundly aphasic amnesia patient grappling with issues of language, memory and identity.

The plot is simple: In the winter of 1942-3 a man is found beaten nearly to death on a dock in Trieste in the so-called Salò Republic. He recovers physical health but has no memory and no language. The only possible clue to his identity is a name tag sewn into the sailor-style tunic he was found in: Sampo Karjalainen.

By co-incidence he is treated by a Finnish doctor serving on a German hospital ship. The doctor, a bitterly conflicted ex-patriot, convinces himself that his patient must be Finn and starts teaching him the language from scratch. After some time and little progress he arranges to have “Sampo” transported “home”, alone, to Helsinki in the hopes that immersion in the mother tongue or perhaps some familiar sight or sound might help restore his memory.

He arrives in November of 1943, just in time for the worst part of the Continuation War. He studies the language with fanatic dedication under the tutelage of a shamanistic Lutheran pastor – who also does his best to teach him the semi-miraculous rudiments of being Finnish: The Kalevala, koskenkorva and a very peculiar chauvinistic nationalism, not always in that order. The pastor nearly steals the show:

“The word east means nothing on its own. In our language you have to be more specific. Ita means the east in general, Kaakko means the precise point where the sun rises. If we have two distinct words for east in Finnish, it is so as to avoid having to use the same word for both dawn, and the direction from which the Slav invasions come...”

There is also a love story, of sorts, the on-going war with Russia and observations on the Finnish climate and environment. And another parallel storyline in which the Finnish doctor from Trieste mulls over his own past and finally discovers a terrible mistake, but too late to prevent a suitably grim and tragic ending for Sampo. An ending that goes down to the strains of the Porilaisten marssi. That end does not come as a surprise, so I have not ruined anything for potential readers by setting it out here.

In some ways the story is like a distillation of Finnish humour itself: darkly grim and fatalistic on the surface – but pee in your pants hilarious, if and when you get it. Of course you must remain utterly expressionless while you pee in your pants...

For all the plot dressing, this book is really about language, memory and identity – what it might be like to live without them; which parts of them might be most important; and what it might actually mean to be “Finn” or “Italian” or “Estonian” or “European” or whatever.

Is identity just a label that you can switch at will? Or is it innate, like genetic predisposition? Maybe it is a construction, formed out of lullabies sung to us as infants, myths and legends drilled into us as children and common vocabularies that we work out with our peers as adolescents and adults? Or to put it more concretely: Could an Italian ever become a Finn?

I think these sorts of questions are very current in our Toronto Estonian community and this novel could possibly help some of our loudest protagonists overcome some small but troublesome issues of context and perspective, if they could be bothered to read such a book. Beyond that, even if you, personally [like me], have no possible issues with context or perspective, it is great fun being able to relate with poor Sampo’s struggles:

“...conjugating each verb in every voice I knew, down to the most tortuous forms of the passive, the conditional, even the past potential; undaunted now by irregular verbs with alternating consonants, I had in my head all the ‘p’s which became ‘v’s, the ‘lke’s which became ‘lje’s, the ‘ht’s which became ‘hd’s. Strong or weak, there was no stem of any verb I could not pick out in the forest of syllabic mutations, where it was enough to add one vowel to cause three consonants to disappear; then there were those nouns without so much as a dipthong, where the ‘i’s of the plural put paid to every syllable not protected by solid dentals....”

The author, Diego Marani, is an Italian linguist employed by the European Union, who has written several novels as well as invented a new language that he calls Europanto (any word from any EU language is allowed in any place at any time where it makes sense to use it). He has clearly spent time learning the Finnish language and getting to know some Finnish people.

The interpretations of The Kalevala that he puts into the shaman-pastor’s mouth are the best and most colourful I’ve come across in English. Also dear are the all-too-brief overviews of Finno-Ugric and Altaic relations. With one major quibble this book feels convincingly real throughout.

But first, some minor literary quibbles: the first twenty pages seem to plod along a little too deliberately (don’t give up!); the artifice of having the doctor write the story in the first person, mostly, but not always, in the present tense, based upon Sampo’s left-behind language study notes, love letters and diaries – interspersed with the doctor’s own commentaries and first-person narratives, dredging up egregious bits of the Finnish civil war – well, here and there this superstructure got a little out of hand for a recreational reader such as myself, but not too badly and never for too long.

My major quibble is that here we have an entire novel about Finns and their language set mainly in Finland and the word sauna does not make a single appearance! Sauna is the very first place that an injured amnesiac Finn returning to his homeland in winter would end up! How could it possibly be otherwise!? How could he avoid it or avoid writing about it?

Towards the end I started wondering if the author had made a bet that he could write an entire novel about Finns and their language set mainly in Finland without ever once using the “S” word. If so, he succeeded brilliantly and since it is doubtful that any Italian or Englishman would ever notice this stupendous achievement I’ll take the opportunity to say: Bravo Diego!

I highly recommend this book. It memorably covers a lot of historical and linguistic grounds that will be vividly familiar to readers of Estonian Life and addresses issues of great concern to all but the most self-satisfied members of dominant majoritarian social groups. Well worth reading!

Nuova Grammatica Finlandese (2000) by Diego Marani, translated from Italian to English as New Finnish Grammar by Judith Landry was published in the UK by Dedalus in the spring of 2011 (many professional reviews by real professional book reviewers are on the web) and will be arriving at Canadian booksellers any day or week now.
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