The book begins in 1943. Finland was fighting Russia as an ally of Germany, but the Germans were on the retreat and the traditional Russian enemy is poised for, and eventually launches, a new invasion of Finland.
The central character is called Sampo Karjalainen. He is found clubbed unconscious by some assailant in Trieste. That Finish name - drawn from Finnish mythology - is sewn into his seaman's jacket, but he has lost all memory of who he is and all understanding and use of language. In the Trieste military hospital he is found by the Finnish born Dr Petri Friari, who is serving in the German army: he had fled his country in 1918, after his father had been killed as a suspected communist during the Finnish civil war which was won by the Whites. Though an exile from his country, Friari still feels a profound love and identity with it. He feels an obligation to help Sampo to recover the Finnish language and begins to teach him; he has not got very far when he arranges for Sampo to be sent, early in 1944, to a military hospital in Helsinki, where, surrounded by other Finns, he hopes Sampo's recovery of his language will be speeded up. In that hospital a caring army chaplain, Pastor Olof Koskela, takes on the job of teaching Sampo. The hospital is Sampo's base, but he can spend as much of his time outside it as he likes (one of the many things in the book which seems unlikely).
We understand from the Preface that Sampo has died when Dr Petri himself goes back to Helsinki in 1946 and finds a manuscript written by Sampo. Its transcription, filled out with Petri's occasional emendations and comments, makes up most of the book.
One has to suspend one's disbelief that someone who had painfully had to learn Finnish from scratch and never really feels at home in it should have written such an eloquent and poetic book, even given Petri's emendations; that he could have understood, let alone reproduced, Koskela's sophisticated ideas. These are, for example, about the differences between the Russians and the Finns or between Russian Orthodox and Finnish Lutheran theology. Then there are his allusions to Finnish mythology, as if Sampo were familiar with them. Koskela is increasingly obsessed - to the point of mania - with the Finnish epic, the Kalevala; its grim stories shape the Pastor's view of life, and he sees parallels between them and the situation in which Finland or the Pastor or Sampo find themselves; but I have to say that for the most part they eluded me.
Koskela also has a deep love for the Finnish language, and he tells Sampo about its lyricism and subtlety and a character unlike that of any other language and in which, for example, nouns have 15 cases according to context and in which the word for the Bible (Raamattu) also means Grammar. At one point, when Sampo has already accumulated a large vocabulary, he still compares the language to "an enemy who was attacking me from behind" and which each day surprised him on a different front, while he was trying to keep his mind clear of its "carpet-bombing."
His difficulties with the language notwithstanding, there are in Sampo's account the most striking descriptions of what he feels - despair at times, because the language has not yet become his own and he feels isolated and haunted by not being able to remember who he really is; the joy when he can communicate without words, as during a tremendous scene during a bombardment by the Russian air force; ambivalence when tempted into intimacy with a wise young woman who, so we are given to understand, might have given him some identity if he had accepted her love and her help; finally his utter devastation when, in a coup de théâtre, even the one thing he thought he did know about himself, and which had given his recent life some presumed meaning, terrifyingly turned out to have no foundation.
It looks as if the book had been written by a Finnish patriot, but the author, steeped as he is in the Finnish language, culture, landscape, climate and history, is actually an Italian. There are many beautifully written scenes, and they have been superbly translated from the author's Italian into English by Judith Landry. Though, as I said, I had from time to time had to suspend my disbelief and though I could not always follow the rumination of Koskela, I found this an utterly compelling story.