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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.

 

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