I have just finished reading “New Finnish Grammar” by Diego Marani (translated from the Ialtian by Judith Landry). I read it because it ended up in the shortlist for the Independent Foreign fiction Prize 2012 and it sounded intriguing.
The blurb reads:
“One night at Trieste in September 1943 a seriously wounded soldier is found on the quay. The doctor, of a newly arrived German hospital ship, Pietri Friari gives the unconscious soldier medical assistance. His new patient has no documents or anything that can identifying him. When he regains consciousness he has lost his memory and cannot even remember what language he speaks. From a few things found on the man the doctor, who is originally from Finland, believes him to be a sailor and a fellow countryman, who somehow or other has ended up in Trieste. The doctor dedicates himself to teaching the man Finnish, beginning the reconstruction of the identity of Sampo Karjalainen, leading the missing man to return to Finland in search of his identity and his past.”
The book follows this man “Sampo” as he tries to recover his memory and his identity, and immerses himself in learning the Finnish language and trying to re-build himself with a Finnish identity. He notes down everything he learns and has help from a pastor who teaches him about Finnish history and folklore while helping “Sampo” learn the difficult Finnish language.
Most of the book is written from the point of view of “Sampo” himself, but there are notes and background information along the way added by the Finnish doctor who found him, treated him, and told him to learn Finnish. These notes are useful in filling in some of the gaps, but we also learn about the doctor and his own personal history and feelings towards his homeland.
I’m not so sure i like the doctor very much because he seems so determined that “Sampo” is Finnish and encourages him to find himself again. But, even though he was acting in what he believed is the best way, i feel a bit sorry for the doctor because of his mistake.
The pastor is a more interesting character: He talks a lot about Finnish folklore and God and so on, and he seems to lose the plot a bit towards the end where things turn a bit strange. He seems to think a lot about things and has a lot of opinions, and i thought this might push “Sampo” in the wrong direction, as he may not be the best influence on him. I’m still not sure though.
The focus on the Finnish language (the book isn’t, as the title suggests, about Finnish grammar in a technical manner) is quite interesting, especially with the book’s original language being Italian. As i’m reading it in English, i found it hard to believe that it was from Italian, because there is just so much Finnish in there. Indeed, as well as the story, we learn a lot about the language itself from this book. I was fascinated by the idea of a man with no memory of a mothertongue learning a whole new language from scratch, not even able to match a word in Finnish with one in an existing language. Especially Finnish, which is one of the most difficult languages to learn and which is rarely spoken outside Finland. Language is really important to identity because it is the only way you can communicate with others, or even inside your own head. To have no language at all can cut you off completely from the world around you, and i can’t imagine the feelings of desperation that “Sampo” was feeling during this book. He makes a great effort to create a new identity for himself by learning Finnish and exploring Helsinki and joining in with others, but he is still the outsider with nothing of his own to share.
This book is difficult to follow, maybe a bit too long as well, and having two narrators can get a little confusing at times, but it is a fascinating read. If you can persevere with it, you will appreciate how difficult it must have been to not only write, but also to translate. The ending is a bit predictable, but at the same time it is rather vague.
I give this book 6/10 because it is an intriguing subject to read about and “Sampo’s” tale is desperately sad and kind of beautiful in its own way. Difficult but worth reading if you can get through the considerable amount of brain-draining waffle in it! I wouldn’t read it again though, too much effort!
Note: I read this on my Kindle, and the ebook read very well.