Monday, March 26, 2012
book review: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Language defines us all. What tells you I'm English in seconds are the words that come out of my mouth. But imagine if all I had was a name tag sewn in a sailors jacket and no memory of anything else, even my mother tongue.
That's the starting point for this story of a doctor, patient and country caught in the middle of the Second World War. The doctor, Peter Friari, is a Finn who finds himself far from home both spiritually and physically. He is asked to care for a man who has been clubbed around the head and left for dead on Trieste quayside. The only distinguishing mark is a name label sewn into his sailor's jacket - Sampo Karjalainen.
That Finnish name is seized on by Dr Friari who is determined to help get the sailor home and starts his education of the Finnish language. The recovery is slow but determined and after a few weeks Sampo gets a chance to travel back to Helsinki. He struggles to communicate with those around him but starts to try to tackle the language and master Finnish.
Once back in Finland he finds a country that is haunted by a fear of Russian invasion. Memories of the past mingle with the present with myths and legends being called upon to galvanise the troops and remind those fighting of great former deeds.
Through this war torn land Sampo spends his time with a priest learning the language and writing down his grammar lessons and diaries in a notepad.
It is this same notepad that forms the basis of the story. Introduced as a document found in the hospital where Sampo had been staying the Doctor shares the story with the occasional commentary of his own - helpfully inserted in italics.
Sampo's story, intertwined with the doctor who is haunted by his past and trying to resolve his feelings for his country, is one about identity.
Grammar might not spark off thoughts of excitement but understanding language is what defines us all and as Sampo struggles to find his own past and work through Finnish he discovers a fair bit about the people around him, even if he doesn't find his own past.
A very clever story that rightfully deserves it's place on a longlist of books for a translated fiction prize as it is all about language and the importance of words, memories and identity.