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A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar

A few years ago I got into a rather intense discussion along the lines of whether there is any association between the currency used by a country and their population’s feeling of national pride and identity. It was prompted by comments from someone in the British government  who was arguing vehemently in favour of Britain keeping the pound sterling as its national currency.  Part of the politician’s argument seemed to be that if Britain adopted the Euro, like other members of the European Community, it would lose a critical element of what makes Britain special. It was an argument that held no merit for my three dinner companions, all of whom came from countries which had already ‘lost’ the peseta and the franc in favour of the Euro.

NewFinnishGrammarIf currency doesn’t define a person’s identity and affiliation to a country, what about language? New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani suggests that without our language, we have no roots and no memory. Don’t be misled by the title, this isn’t a turgid academic study about a fringe language, but an intelligently written novel by a linguist working for the European Community.

The story is quite a simple one. It begins with the discovery of a badly-beaten man on a quayside in Trieste during World War 2.   Though he recovers consciousness he has no memory and no language and nothing to identify himself except for the name tag of “SAMPO KARJALAINEN” sewn inside the seaman’s jacket which suggests he is of Finnish origin. A passing military doctor Petri Friari, resolves to re-aquaint the mystery man with the language of his homeland as a way of restoring his memory and rebuilding his life. Petri tells his patient:

The merest breath is enough if there is still any fire at all beneath the ashes…. You will have to work hard. Finnish is the language in which you were brought up, the language of the lullaby that sent you to sleep each night. Apart from studying it you must learn to love it. think of each word as though it was a magic charm which might open a door to memory. Say each word aloud as though it were a prayer…

Sampo recovers sufficiently to be repatriated to a hospital in his supposed home in Helsinki. There with the aid of another doctor, a pastor who believes in the restorative power of Finnish myths and legends and a Red Cross nurse, he tries to find himself once again. It’s not an easy task. Finnish apparently is a fiendishly difficult language “thorny but delicate.”

…the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in on itself; here meaning ripens slowly and when, when ripe flies off, bright and elusive … whin foreigners listen to a Finn speaking they always have the sense that something is flying out of his moth, the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight…

Sampo meets the challenge head on, diligently applying himself to his lessons everyday but though his vocabulary and understanding improves, his knowledge  of his identity remains elusive.

I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive.

This is a novel about alienation, about isolation, how we relate to our pasts, to our cultural traditions and to our mother tongue. It has an overwhelming sense of sadness, the feeling that no matter how much we try, it’s impossible to find the way back. It’s a book that makes you think and to appreciate the value of the language we heard from our first moments on earth and that we use every day without giving it a second thought.

A wonderful novel, that was considered a masterpiece when it was published in Marani’s native Italian. It’s taken more than 10 years to become available in English but well worth the wait.


New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani. Translator: Judith Landry. Published by Dedalus Books

Marani worked as a linguist for the European Commission. In addition to his writing he created Europanto, a mock international language.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

13 thoughts on “A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar

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  • This is on my TBR list! It got some good buzz when it was first published. I had forgotten all about it (I should probably look at my lists now and then!) so thanks for the reminder!

    • I have so many titles on my ‘suggested reading’ list that its become rather unmanageable. Think I’m join to have to start categorising them

  • I have always thought that to a greater or lesser extent language and the way in which we use it defines who we are and that if we begin to lose the ability to express ourselves then we also chip away at our very identity. And yes, Finnish is extremely difficult to learn. I think the only language to which it is related is Magyar and that is a total nightmare to get your head around.

    • Are those even worse than Chinese? I got a CD set from the library as preparation for a trip to China a few years ago. Oh boy.

  • Sounds fascinating. I have often thought that language inhabits more than the brain — that somehow it gives shape and substance to the whole body — that there are times when a person looks his language if that makes sense.

    • Now you have me pondering Barbara. can you tell someone’s identity from their look??

  • Oh this is a book that I have been wanting to read for a long while. Such a lovely review, I can’t wait much longer (I just need to clone myself because I never feel like I will have enough time to read everything I want).

    • That might be the only way I can read everything that I’d like to read (and thats just the ones that have already been published)

  • encgolsen

    I am intrigued by this one. Especially since the author invented his own language on the side!

    • my dad told me that he and his friends created their own ‘language’ – they just said every word backwards.

  • What a fascinating sounding novel. When I began reading your review I thought I was going to be reading about a non fiction book. I wonder why it took so long to be published in English?

    • Its like a lot of fiction in languages other than English, Ali, they do tend to take time before they get spotted. and then the translation process would be time consuming too


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