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God’s Dog by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2014, 153 p. Translated from the Italian Il Cane di Deo by Judith Landry

 God’s Dog cover

Well. This is an odd concoction. Perhaps as far removed from Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs as it is possible to get.

The dog of the title is Domingo Salazar, an orphan of the 2010 Haiti earthquake brought to Italy by the fathers of the Holy Cross, a graduate of the Papal Police Academy whose duties are to see to it that the laws of Holy Mother Church are respected and to work for the Church’s worldwide spread. The world he works in is not our own. It is an altered history. Perhaps that should read as an altered future. In it the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger promulgated a new Catholic Catechism and Italy has become a theocracy. (The book was written before, in our world, Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, resigned as Pope. Here he obviously didn’t do so and was not succeeded by Francis.)

As might be expected this Church takes a hard line. “The chief sins against chastity are adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, rape and homosexual acts.” The most unsavoury part of this new dispensation however is that the dying are given only so much palliative care in hospital before it is withdrawn; so that they may experience some of Christ’s suffering.

Salazar has been working to sabotage the secular state, spread distrust in science, and intercept the anti-papist refugees from Italy, but he has been recalled to Rome to track down an abortionist doctor named Ivan Zago and uncover euthanasiasts who would deny the dying their pain. The events of the story occur in the lead-up to the ceremony of canonisation of Benedict XVI in which the final scene is set.

Some of the necessary information dumping is provided by extracts from Salazar’s diary (not quite a clunky decision by Marani as the diary is read partway through the book by Salazar’s vicar.) He has such thoughts as, ‘No religion is better than Islam at cloaking faith in reason. Muslims use reason to reveal the intelligent order which pervades creation, and that is the way to disarm science,’ and, ‘The world lived in peace until it rediscovered Greek thought and, with it, the mania for experiment. To experiment means ceasing to put one’s trust in the created world, but wanting to take it apart. …… Now our task must be to bury knowledge. To forget it … to lead people down the wrong track.’ He writes, ‘Our fight, therefore, must be to demolish science. In Africa, we intercept anti-AIDS vaccines and replace them with ampoules containing water. The illness is spreading, and man is losing his faith in science.’ The attitude of Arnold of Citeaux pervades the theology. (This is perhaps not a novel that could have been written by someone not from a nominally Catholic country.)

Salazar’s bizarre longing for a merger of the three faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism leads to him being accused of the sins of polytheism and idolatry. He tells his inquisitor that as he was endeavouring to convert unbelievers the word, rather, is proselytism. An odd flavour of the 1930s somehow pervades the sections set in the convent hospital of San Filippo Neri. There is also a minor strand about the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ which prove men and animals have much in common in terms of feelings and a chimpanzee which has been shown capable of speech – in Swahili as it happens.

It’s certainly all interesting but marred rather by a multiplicity of viewpoint characters and a tendency for each new section to begin with the reader not knowing who that character is.

Once again Judith Landry’s translation is excellent even if in the “thriller” moments it tends to cliché (‘hot pursuit,’ ‘right on his heels’) but it must be difficult to render such passages in a more inventive manner. Whether or not euthanasiast is a direct reflection of Marani’s Italian I don’t know but it is certainly a better term than the more straightforward euthanist would be since it carries the overtone of enthusiasm.

Pedant’s corner:- a cleaning women (woman,) Hippocrates’ (Hippocrates’s,) “he sat down as the table” (at the table,) “‘he can hardly breath’” (breathe,) Mercedes’ (Mercedes’s,) “the group had been virtually decimated” (the sense is not “reduced by a tenth”,) “which from which it was separated” (from which it was separated,) Kibale (on first two mentions: it’s afterwards spelled Kibele,) a missing full stop, “The crowd were holding their breath” (was holding its breath.)
In the “Praise for Diego Marani” section at the end:- ignornace ( ignorance,) plus three [or arguably four] in one quote – it’s (its,) ones (one’s,) “the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others” (an individual: so him -or her- self; plus, how he or she identifies with others.)

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2012, 166 p. Translated from the Italian L’ultimo dei vostiachi by Judith Landry.

 The Last of the Vostyachs cover

Marani wrote one of the best novels I read last year – any year – New Finnish Grammar. His interest in Finland and its language is again in evidence here. In many ways this novel is the one which the title of New Finnish Grammar promised it would be. It may in fact be unique in having a plot which depends on comparative philology for its motor.

The titular last of the Vostyachs is Ivan, survivor of a gulag in which, twenty years before, his father was killed trying to escape. For all those years, until the guards quit due to lack of pay and left the gates open for the inmates to wander off, Ivan did not speak. He is a misfit in the locality, communes with animals and believes the wolves are other Vostyachs who changed form to evade the world and cannot get back. Olga, a Russian linguist studying the Samoyedic languages thereabouts is asked to help understand what he says. She recognises his speech as Vostyach, the long thought extinct oldest language of the Proto-Uralic family, a kind of linguistic missing link between Eskimo-Aleut and Finno-Ugric.

Trusting to his scientific curiosity, she writes to tell Professor Jarmo Aurtova, organiser of an imminent Finno-Ugric conference in Helsinki, of her discovery, making great play of Ivan’s velar fricatives and retroflex palatals, his use of the fricative lateral and labiovelar appendix. (Somewhat improbably, given the time scale involved, she suggests to Aurtova, “Perhaps your ancestors included some Sioux chief who fought at Little Big Horn!”) She tells him Ivan has problems with the modern world, does not like aeroplanes in particular, so while she attends a meeting in St Petersburg she will despatch him by train to Helsinki, and asks Aurtova to meet him at the station.

Aurtova has a portrait of Finnish wartime leader Marshal Mannerheim on his wall and thinks Finland and Finnish the pinnacle of human development, that Finns were the first Europeans, connected to neither Mongols nor Eskimos. As a result he does not take kindly to the prospect of a living rebuke to his beliefs. The scene is set for a tragedy, played out in the coldest night in Helsinki for fifty years and involving the release of animals from Helsinki zoo.

This may seem forbidding but the novel flows extremely smoothly and, despite the instances of linguistic vocabulary, is very easy to read. Marani creates compelling characters, can structure and tell a story and the translation (with a couple of exceptions*) serves him very well.

Marani has Olga express the preciousness of a language. During their encounter within the book she tells Aurtova that Vostyach has a word, powakaluta, for “something grey glimpsed vaguely running through the snow,” a word which will vanish if Vostyach does – though the thing it describes will not. And that disappearance would be terrible. She also reminds him that Finnish doesn’t have a future tense. (Something which is apparently common. English hasn’t, but can utilise an auxiliary verb to enable one.)

If I have any criticisms it is that the book may be romanticising slightly both Ivan’s relationship with nature and that of native North Americans and that Aurtova’s actions are perhaps a little unbelievable.

The Last of the Vostyachs was a delight to read just the same.

*The issues with the translation were firstly that ice hockey isn’t played on a pitch and its scoring system does not have points, “a few points short of victory,” plus the sentence, “One of the six thousand languages still spoken on this earth die out every two weeks.” Dies, surely? In a book dealing with philology, it’s perhaps as well to nail down the grammar. And that “ancestors” isn’t the correct word; “many times removed cousin” is nearer the mark.

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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