The subdued art-work on the cover matches the plain title of this book, but first impressions in a book-shop can be safely ignored – Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar is a very inventive and unusual book, which I would place in my top two books read this year.
The book opens in Trieste in September 1943 when a sailor wakes from a coma in a German hospital-ship moored in the port of Trieste. He is heavily wounded and does not know who he is or what happened to him. Red Cross nurses attend to him and a doctor appears from time to time to shine a light into his eyes and to try to obtain some information about what happened to him.
The doctor’s new patient has no documents or anything else that can identify him and when he regains consciousness we learn that he has lost his memory and cannot even remember what language he speaks.
One morning Doctor Friari arrives with a bundle under his arm. He unwraps his parcel to reveal a Finnish sailor’s jacket with the name Sampo Karjalainen on a cotton label inside the collar. In one of the pockets is a handkerchief with the initials S.K. embroidered on it. The doctor speaks the name and shows the unknown soldier the handkerchief in the hope that it will reawaken memories. The doctor himself is Finnish and begins to speak his native language but the patient shows no response other than mild bewilderment.
Doctor Friari dedicates himself to reviving the man’s memory. The only evidence of his identity is the sailor’s jacket he was wearing when he was found with his head badly smashed on the quayside of Trieste. Firstly the doctor teaches him to whistle and this seems to cheer him up, then slowly he introduces the Finnish language to him and although it has no resonance in the man’s brain, he painstakingly continues to build up his vocabulary in the hope that he will be able to return to Finland to recover his old identity.
The doctor’s thoughts, both before, during and after the events described are interleaved with the first person narrative from the sailor himself and as the book progresses, more and more is revealed about the doctor, his work as a neurologist in Hamburg and his deep love for his Finnish origins.
Doctor Friari begins to teach the sailor about Finnish customs, its history and ancient legends, which adds to the interest of the book. We learn of the Finnish loathing of Russia and it’s constant threat to Finnish integrity, causing the Finns to give access to German armies as they passed through their country on their way to the Russian offensive against Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The gallant Finns fought against Russian invasion early in the war, but by 1944 were having to fight again to force the Germans out of Northern Finland.
Eventually it becomes possible for the sailor to return to Finland via a lengthy train journey across war-torn Europe and a new adventure begins as he works to find out who he is, while living in a military hospital in Helsinki (and this where I must stop describing the story for fear of spoiling it).
The book is beautifully written (Translator Judith Landry has done an excellent job on it) and it is one of the most intriguing books I have read recently. This is fiction that makes you think, raising so many questions about the connection between language and identity. If you receive damage to the brain and lose your birth language – and you are found alone in a foreign city with no means of identification, what language should you be taught? And how do you learn to adopt a cultural identity when you have forgotten where you came from? I loved the way that Doctor Friari concentrated as much on the experience of being Finnish as on the language itself. For without love of country, heritage and values what are you? A stateless person is rarely satisfied to be a citizen of the world.
It was an inspired choice to locate the first part of the book in Trieste, that ancient city at the junction of German, Latin and Slavic nations which has changed hands so many times over the centuries. The city has featured in many novels where spies, traffickers and criminals have to meet and it has provided refuge for the flotsam and jetsam of Europe all through the conflicts of the last century.
I couldn’t help but relate this book back to Ferenc Kerinthy’s fine novel Metropole in which a linguist travelling to a conference has his plane diverted to an unknown city and is unable to identify what country he is in or the language spoken. Metropole explores the increasing panic arising from a total loss of the ability to communicate with those around you.
New Finnish Grammar won three literary prizes in Italy in 2001: Premio Grinzane Cavour, Premio Ostia Mare and Premio Giuseppe Desi and has received critical acclaim across Europe. Diego Marani works in the Translation Directorate of the European Commission. Wikipedia tells me that he has a great interesting linguistics and has invented a language called Europanto for use across member states.
The book is published by Dedalus Books with the support of The Arts Council of England and the equivalent body in Italy. I have written on this website about several books from Dedalus who specialise in their own distinctive genre “which we term distorted reality, where the bizarre, the unusual, the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European”. Their catalogue is a treat to browse for people like me who greatly enjoy this type of book.