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Helsinki, Finland

Next stop after St Petersburg was Helsinki, capital of Finland.

A lot of the buidings in the city centre are in the Art Nouveau style. These are the ones I photographed on the way to the Sibelius Monument.

Art Nouveau Building, Helsinki

Helsinki, Art Nouveau Building

Yellow Art Nouveau Building, Helsinki

Another Art Nouveau Building, Helsinki

The one in the centre here shades into Art Deco in the windows:-

Art Nouveau/Art Deco  Building, Helsinki

Note the giraffe figures on the balcony here:-

Giraffes In Helsinki

I have absolutely no idea what these were about:-

Giraffes in Helsinki, Close-up

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.

The Wine of Solitude by Irène Némirovsky

Translated from the French, Le Vin de Solitude, by Sandra Smith.

Chatto and Windus, 2011, 248 p. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, 1935.

Hélène Karol is the only child of Bella and Boris Karol. Bella feels she has been forced, for financial security, to marry beneath her – she is self-centred and has expensive tastes. Boris is forced to leave his job as he would be tempted to steal to keep her in style. He leaves for, and makes his fortune in, Siberia. While he is there Bella takes a lover, Max Safronov, who considers the child Hélène a nuisance. Boris refuses openly to acknowledge his wife’s infidelities. Némirovsky notes that “a man needs a certain amount of breathable air, a small dose of oxygen and illusion in order to live.”

The novel traces Hélène’s life from early childhood in Kiev, to St Petersburg, then after the Russian Revolution to Finland and finally France. Hélène loves her father but the only person who has any time for her is her governess Madamoiselle Rose, with whose services Bella eventually dispenses, claiming she has set Hélène against her.

The book’s focus is firmly on Hélène and the effects on her of Bella’s indifference. While still a child she reads a book displaying a happy family she thinks is a fantasy and writes in it, “In every family there is nothing but greed, lies and misunderstanding.” The upheavals of the outside world, the Great War, the Revolution, are mostly off-stage – though one of the scenes in Finland has the White Army gradually nearing the village where the Karols are staying. Even when living through interesting times people still have personal concerns. Wars and revolutions are only the backdrop against which their lives are experienced.

Hélène’s hatred of her mother is such that when she grows up and realises a young woman’s attractiveness to men she determines to win Max’s affections to gain a measure of revenge. More subtly Némirovsky has Max’s mother say to him, in respect of Bella, “Women don’t love a man for himself but as a weapon against another woman,” and doesn’t make those Hélène’s words.

Since Némirovsky was herself Ukrainian and emigrated to France it would be too easy to attribute this novel to autobiography. To do so would be to deny the novelist’s art. As a depiction of an emotionally deprived childhood, and its effects, The Wine of Solitude is exemplary. It also stands as a reminder that those effects need not be determinative. We can choose how to behave.

The translation renders the area of Hélène’s childhood as “the” Ukraine. While this was the Soviet designation and may have been the one in use when the book was written in the 1930s I believe the inhabitants of that country prefer just Ukraine. A pedant’s heart will be gladdened by the fact that in the Finnish scenes Smith rendered a question grammatically correctly as, “Whom were they firing at?” though it does appear fussy to modern eyes.

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