New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2012, 378p. Translated from the Italian, Nuova Grammaticae Finlandese, by Judith Landry.

To someone like me – obliged to learn Latin at school, but nevertheless enjoyed it, then dabbled very slightly in German and who subsequently learned the Finnish noun has umpteen cases (I remembered it as nineteen but it’s only fifteen) the attraction of a novel entitled New Finnish Grammar was irresistible. The fact that it was written by an Italian made it even more interesting. Diego Marani has himself invented an international auxiliary language, Europanto, perhaps partly as a joke.

Notwithstanding that, this is a very good book by any standard. It manages to overcome the disadvantage of a substantial lack of dialogue. Dialogue is normally a leavening and character revealing aspect of a piece of fiction, diluting the thickness of the prose. To restrict it is a brave decision for a novelist.

Pietri Friari, an exiled Finn working as a doctor for the German army in Trieste in 1941 has brought to him an injured sailor who has the name tag Sampo Karjalainen sewn on to his jacket and a handkerchief with the initials S K embroidered on it in his pocket. The sailor’s wounds have affected his memory and he does not know who he is nor even his nationality. Doctor Friari assumes his patient must be Finnish and sets out to teach him the rudiments of that language. The framing device has Friari find in Helsinki in 1946 the notebook where Sampo had written down his experiences since his time in Trieste. The main body of the text contains these reminiscences – edited for clarity: occasional sections in italics relate Friari’s thoughts and comments on them.

Throughout the early part of the book the thought kept nagging; in what language does Sampo think and why doesn’t Friari ask him? This would be a large clue to Sampo’s origins but the question is never asked in the novel. This is a minor quibble, though. Sampo’s predicament is intriguing enough to see us through.

I wasn’t expecting the book to be about Finnish grammar but in many ways it is, aspects of the language are mentioned frequently. It is also a short history of Finland in the mid-twentieth century and a primer on Finnish myths/legends. Arguably this is necessarily so as anyone learning to be a Finn, as Sampo is, would need that backgrounding. The translator has had to cope with this too. She does it admirably but at one point puzzlingly used the German term panzer for a Russian tank.

While eschewing love and sex – two of the three perennial literary concerns; the third is death – New Finnish Grammar deals with another important aspect of humanity, belonging – or in this case not belonging, struggling to fit in. As such it is not merely about being Finnish but about being human.

Perhaps oddly for a novel whose driving force is memory loss this may be the most memorable book I’ll read all year.

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