The Last of the Vostyachs Paperback – Nov 1 2012
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"A 'genius' Helsinki mystery with a touch of The Killing."--Nick Lezard in The Guardian
"Marani is obsessed by language and how it defines us. Here's a gifted European linguist also gifted at describing who we are as Europeans."--Rosie Goldsmith in The Independent
About the Author
Diego Marani was born in Ferrara in 1959. He works as a senior linguist for the European Union in Brussels. Every week he writes a column for a Swiss newspaper about current affairs in Europanto, a language that he has invented. His collection of short stories in Europanto, Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot has been published by Dedalus. In Italian he has published seven novels, including the highly acclaimed New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs.
was educated at Oxford where she obtained a first class honors degree in French and Italian. She teaches and translates fiction, art and architecture. Her translation of Marani's New Finnish Grammar won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and was shortlisted for The Best Translated Book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
At last he stumbled on a village inn, and by chance, temporarily marooned there by deep snow, was Olga, a Russian linguist who was making a study of the local languages. She recognized his language, had some Vostyach vocabulary herself, and made recordings of him. She is thrilled to discover that this language is a link between the Finnish and the Eskimo-Aleut language, proving the contested idea that in antiquity the same language group was spoken from Siberia to North America. (There is a good deal of technical discussion about this.) Ivan, for his part, is delighted to be able to communicate with her. Olga was about to attend a congress on the Finno-Ugric languages in Helsinki, and persuaded him to come with her. Needless to say, he was utterly bewildered and frightened by trains, planes, and cities. A commitment makes her send Ivan ahead of her and ask Professor Aurtova, who will be running the Congress, to look after him for a few hours until she arrives.
Up to this point, the story is powerful, poetic, and captivating. But it then changes tone.
Aurtova is a Finnish patriot, hates anything that comes out of Russia, and so has an ideological resistance to the idea that there was any connection between the Finns and the Voystyachs (or, for that matter, between the Finns and the Algonquin Indians). The Finns, he will argue, have long refused to learn neighbouring languages, and he wants this to continue to maintain the purity of their language. Field-Marshal Mannerheim was his hero, and it also emerges later that he hates democracy. Aurtova is also a vile and ruthless scoundrel (he is detested by his ex-wife), and he will go to extreme lengths to prevent Ivan or Olga appearing at the Congress. The descriptive passages are as powerful as ever, but the novel becomes a melodramatic thriller. There are murders. The animals in a zoo are set free and roam the city. Coincidences abound. At first I found this change of tack disconcerting, but because the descriptive passages are as powerful as ever, I adjusted to it, and found the thriller gripping. It does not quite lose sight of the language question, and it reemerges strongly near the end of the book. There is a wonderfully symbolical scene on a liner from Helsinki to the Aland Islands. It is hard to believe, but its development will make for a satisfying conclusion to the novel.
(See also my Amazon review of Marani’s earlier novel “New Finnish Grammar”)
Last of the Voystachs held my attention, was occasionally touching, and passages and strands in it might prove memorable. But I wish Marani had written another draft before publishing, one in which he'd managed to achieve consistency of tone or, better still, harmony of tones. It wouldn't be impossible for a writer so good as he to mix humour with pathos, the absurd with the weighty, and violence with nostalgic yearning; here, though, those elements are irregular patchwork rather than coherent whole. And because they were they competed with, even undermined, each other: The compassion Marani makes the reader feel for Ivan is lessened by the attention given the sit-com ex-wife; the wonderful descriptions of nature and weather are weakened by the account of the Laplander's anxious drive to the beach; the thoughtful passages about linguistics lose a lot of their impact when followed by the attempt to get drunk a woman with a hollow leg. Moreover, changes in viewpoint sometimes also have this patchy quality; the account of two professors meeting in a summer cottage is often awkward because Marani shifts point of view without making clear enough whose viewpoint is being given.
I think this book might have a special appeal to fans of a certain strain of British comedy: It has a far-fetched, very plotty, terribly broad treatment of the humourous. But there's much more to it than the farcical and I'd recommend it to anyone as a book well worth reading: It's a very good novel that could with more care and better balance have been a very powerful one.
It is here that Ivan is discovered by Olga, a linguist, stuck in the village because of the weather, her curiosity is roused by this man who speaks this strange language, which she soon realises is an ancient tongue, and possibly one that joins Finland to pre-Columbian North America. She confides this information via a letter to Professor Jaarmo Aurtova, an expert on Finno-Ugric. This turns out to be a bad decision (Understatement Alert!!) as he plans a speech at the 21st Congress of Finno-Ugric, and in that speech he aims to pronounce Finnish as Europe's oldest & purest language, meaning Olga's news will blow his speech out of the water.
Not knowing this, Olga sends Ivan to Helsinki, and arranges for Jaarmo to meet him. From this point the writer of the book chucks in a couple of murders, a zoo emptied of it's wildlife, an angry ex-wife trailing around the city & an Estonian folk group, all linked in some way by the professor, as he tries to bury all knowledge of the existence of Ivan & more importantly his language. To find out how the author combines all of this you will have to read this very clever and very funny book. Diego Marani's book New Finnish Grammar, made the Official Shortlist for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with the judges stating that..
"This subtle and moving novel shows how much of what we take to be ourselves depends upon the language that we speak and the identity it gives us. It also shows how suddenly that self can be taken away."
In the Last Of The Vostyachs, the author's obsessions are still the same, language, it's purpose not merely as an instrument for communication, but also how it relates to the behavioural codes and cultural values that go to construct ones identity and that not only does language define the characteristics of a specific group or community, it is also the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others. Although this time he has used them to create a fantastic clever, funny mystery/thriller complete with a wonderful villain, that you'll love to hate and whose exploits you'll be amazed and shocked by, all whilst laughing at him, especially in the end scenes.......... but I'll let you discover the delights of that moment.
This book as with New Finnish Grammar, was translated by Judith Landry, and as with that book, she has my heartfelt thanks for allowing me the opportunity to read this with the ease I did. It has also made the longlist for this years (2013) Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, it will be interesting to see if Diego Marani and Judith Landry make the shortlist for the second year running.