Book Review: New Finnish Grammar

By Michael Larsen

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New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani. Photo / Supplied
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani. Photo / Supplied

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Text $26)

The premise of New Finnish Grammar is inspired: a wounded soldier is found by a German crew on the quay at Trieste in September, 1943. He has no identification on him, no memory whatsoever and, crucially, no language.

A name sewn into the sailor's jacket he is wearing is assumed to be his, as it matches the initials on a handkerchief also found on him.

Supposedly a Finn, he is taken to the ship's doctor, who happens to be Finnish. Dr Friari takes it upon himself to teach (re-teach?) this young man Finnish, in the hope that naming his world may help him recall his life and thus recapture his identity. Sampo the soldier is, after some tuition with Friari, despatched to Helsinki with a letter of introduction to a doctor at a military hospital there, in the belief that a return to his homeland and further immersion in his native tongue may help restore his life to him.

After all, without memory, what sort of life do you have?

This is one of the many ideas explored in this remarkable book. Sampo, through his limited ability to understand language and his reserve in revealing himself to anyone - how can he reveal that which he does not know? - spends much time alone, painstakingly copying verbs and declensions and parts of speech into a notebook.

Two key relationships frame the narrative: that with the fiery, shamanistic pastor Koskela and his grammar lessons, bound up in tales of Finnish lore, and that which hardly begins, with Ilma, a nurse from the hospital sent to the front at Viipuri to tend to the wounded piling up hopelessly as the Russians descend on the city.

Koskela is a mentor, Ilma an unrequited love, and both shake, yet also help form, the foundation Sampo is trying to build. And is he constructing a life, or is Finnish constructing him? The pastor, ever-esoteric, tells him: "The forms of a language inevitably have repercussions on the speaker, it is they which mould his face, his land, his habits ... The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self, may indeed no longer recognise it. This does not happen in other languages, because other languages are merely scaffolding for meaning."

It is as if Finnish is the one true tongue, "it was not invented", Sampo is told. But isn't he a native, isn't that what the name inside his jacket collar tells him? How will he know? Will he ever?

"Finland is what remains of something else: take away the Slavs, the Scandinavians, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the sea salt, the birch forests, scrape off a few hundred thousand tons of granite and what you are left with is Finland. If you were once Finnish, at some point or other you will find all this within you, because all this is not stored in your memory, it cannot be mislaid. It is in your blood, your guts."

The mechanic used to deliver the narrative is that of Friari reading Sampo's notebooks towards the end of the war, so while the voice is mostly the soldier's, Friari comments, too. This device reveals at perfect pace that the doctor has an entire agenda of his own to do with his homeland, and the arrival of an amnesiac Finnish soldier who needs his help was the sort of "project" he desperately needed to relieve his own pain. But what price did the Finn unknowingly pay?

The double-whammy in the final pages prohibits me revealing more, but I wager that if you saw it coming, you have a direct line to the author himself.

With the explosion of the self-publishing phenomenon and great swathes of column inches devoted to the "get your book published: it's easy!" market, it would be easy to be sucked into the belief, pushed by more than one well-known creative writing guru, that anyone can write a book. And then you read something like this, with its layer upon layer of meaning, its - despite translation from the Italian - beautiful rhythms and extraordinary cadences and its inspired plot and arresting denouement, and you are reminded, in the most delicious fashion, what "writing a book" really means.

Michael Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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