For twenty years Ivan, arrested together with his father for poaching, had been in a Soviet Gulag in far north of Siberia. After his father had been killed trying to escape, Ivan had not spoken a word. Then, one late autumn day, the soldiers had gone, the inmates left the camp and scattered, and Ivan trudged on alone, for a long time not meeting a soul, surviving by using his old trapping skills. With a home-made drum or flute he can summon, charm or check wild animals. He has the occasional mystical vision. He belongs to the Vostyach tribe, which many scientists believed to have become extinct, and he spoke its near-extinct language.
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”)