Wednesday, 24 October 2012

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani


This is quite a different book. I bought it because the title fascinated me, and the short summary of the story on the back cover. The story takes place during 1943-44. It starts in Trieste where a man is found beaten half to death in the street. He is taken to a German war ship where a doctor takes care of him. To everybody’s surprise the man survives. But he has no memory and he has no language. The doctor, who is Finnish, tries to find out who the man is. The only clue is the name ‘Sampo Karjalainen’ sown into the inside collar of his jacket and a handkerchief with the initials S.K.


Presuming that the patient is Finnish he starts teaching him Finnish. However, the memory is not coming back so the good doctor thinks that the best idea would be to go to Finland. Once there, well-known places, peoples or incidents might trigger the memory to come back.  He manages to put the patient on a train and ship to Helsinki with a recommendation letter to a fellow doctor in the pocket. A last tip of advice is: ‘One more bit of advice,’ he said. ‘I speak now as a man, not as a doctor. Since language is our mother, try and find yourself a woman. It is from a woman that we come into this world, from a mother that we learn to speak. Fall in love, give of yourself. Switch off your brain and follow your heart. You must fall in love with a voice, and with every word you hear it utter.’ 

He arrives in the military hospital in Helsinki just to find that the doctor is away fighting in Karelia.  He is given a bed in the hospital while waiting for  the doctor to return. The local pastor becomes his friend and teaches him the Finnish language. It is a complex language to say the least. He teaches by reading and quoting from the great Finnish epos Kalevala to help him understand not only the language but also the Finnish soul. I will not reveal much more of the story here. 


It is told in a beautiful, poetic language. Even the bad weather is described in such wonderful words that you almost forget the description and are lost in the words. It is a book that makes us thinking about he past, present and future. What happens if we loose one of these steps? Can we still go on? Are we maybe even happier than before?  Or are we lost forever without our memories? ‘…I hope to find some memory of me in someone else; I hope to find someone who can tell me about even one single day in my past life: about one summer’s afternoon when I was a child, some outing, what games I played. Because surely I too must have run around a courtyard kicking a ball?’
I had spoken emphatically, almost angrily; but my tirade vanished into the unresponsive darkness as though I had not spoken.
‘But perhaps I’m wrong,’ I went on bitterly. ‘Perhaps that’s not what I should be looking for.’
‘Tomorrow this will already be a memory a small seed pearl,’ said Ilma after a long sight. I was rejecting her and still she was trying to comfort me.
‘To keep a memory you have to have somewhere to store it,’ I shot back tersely.
‘You can glue it into your album of memories along with the Porilaisten marssi. Night with Ilma, you could call it.’ 

The book is written by Diego Marani who is an Italian novelist, translator and newspaper columnist. While working as a translator for the European Union he invented a language ‘Europanto’ which is a mixture of languages and based on the common practice of word-borrowing usage of many EU languages. You cannot escape to notice that this writer is a lover of languages and words. It is beautifully and skillfully translated into English by Judith Landry.

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