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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.

Endnotes 

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.

 

Sunday Salon: Marching On

daffodilsSigns of spring here in Wales yesterday just in time for the annual celebration of St David’s Day. Some years the daffodils (our national flower) are barely in evidence on March 1 but yesterday they were out in bloom as we drove home from a celebration weekend with the family.

The year is marching ahead so fast that I completely overlooked the third anniversary of this blog two weeks ago. It should be one of the simplest things to remember since the date coincides with Valentine’s Day but clearly my little brain can’t cope with too many pieces of data simultaneously. So it’s a happy belated birthday greeting this year.

February closed with the pleasure of a experiencing one author for the first time (Diego Marani) and becoming re-aquainted with one who has delighted me in the past (Emile Zola).

Marani loves languages (he works as a senior linguist for the European Union in Brussels and has also invented a language called Europanto) and has put that love and knowledge to good use in New Finnish Grammar. Despite the title, this is not a text book but rather a contemplative, atmospheric novel about the importance of language to one’s identity. Wonderfully written, by the time I’d finished it, I just wanted to start all over again.

Zola’s Germinal is one of my all time favourite reads. I didn’t think novels could be more powerful than that story of the misery and desperation of mining families in Northern France.  L’Assommoir came close to it however.  At the heart of the novel is Gervaise, a young woman who sets up her own laundry and makes it a huge success. It’s one of those novels that you read with a sense of foreboding. So pretty soon her husband is quaffing strong drinks at L’Assommoir and squandering the profits.  Zola of course believed that our fates are governed by heredity and environment so there isn’t much hope that Gervaise,the daughter of a drunkard, would ever enjoy a happy life but still you read the book hoping that he’s wrong.

So much for February, what’s on the horizon for March?

I’ll be finishing A Room with a View by E M Forster which is part of my Classics Club list. I’m also reading Benediction by Kent Haruf. I’ve not encountered Haruf before but apparently this is his fifth novel. Written in a sparse prose form, it conjures up a strong sense of it’s location (a small community in Colorado) and of the inhabitants whose lives intersect with Dad Lewis, the owner of the local hardware store. He’s an ordinary man who learns he has just a few more months to live. He prepares to make his peace with the world and to reflect on how he made his own mark. I like the way Haruf deals with the subject of death without resorting to mawkishness and sentimentality.

After that, who knows. I don’t like planning too far ahead because I may be in a different mood when the time comes. It’s probably time I read one of the thicker Booker novels on my shelf or one of the authors from my world literature list. Or maybe I just wont be able to resist the second in the Louise Penny series……

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