New Finnish Grammar Paperback – Sep 1 2011
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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. He has also published in France a collection of short stories in Europanto. In Italian he has published six novels, the most recent being L'Amico della Donna
Judith Landry was educated at Somerville College, Oxford where she obtained a first class honours degree in French and Italian.She combines a career as a translator of works of fiction,art and architecture with part-time teaching. Her translations for Dedalus are: The House by the Medlar Tree by Giovanni Verga,The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte,Paris Noir:The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague by Sylvie Germain and Smarra & Trilby by Charles Nodier.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Prologue My name is Petri Friari, I live at no. 16 Kaiser-Wilhelmstrasse, Hamburg and I work as a neurologist at the city's university hospital. I found this manuscript on 24 January 1946 in a trunk in the military hospital in Helsinki, together with a sailor's jacket, a handkerchief with the letters S.K. embroidered on it, three letters, a volume of the Kalevala and an empty bottle of koskenkorva. It is written in a spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs, exercises in Finnish grammar and bits cut out from the Helsinki telephone directory. Some pages are illegible, others contain just sequences of words without any apparent logic, drawings, foreign names, and headlines taken from the "Helsingin Sanomat. Often the narrative proceeds by way of scraps cut out from newspapers, repeated each time a similar situation occurs, and fleshed out by others, in a wide variety of linguistic registers. My knowledge of the facts which lay behind this document has enabled me to reconstruct the story that it tells, to rewrite it in more orthodox language and to fill in some of the gaps. I myself have often had to intervene, adding linking passages of my own to tie up unrelated episodes. Adjectives left in the margins, nouns doggedly declined in the more complex cases of the Finnish language, all traced the outlines of a story which was well-known to me. In this way I have been able to coax these pages to yield up something that they were struggling in vain to tell. Using the scalpel of memory, I carved out words which ached like wounds I had believed to be long healed. Since I bore witness to many of the events and conversations recorded here, I have been able to piece them accurately together. In this I was greatly helped by Miss Ilma Koivisto, a nurse in the military medical corps who, like myself, was personally acquainted with the author of these pages.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In Diego Marani's book New Finnish Grammar, a man is found on a Trieste quay, unconscious with obvious head wounds. When he regains consciousness he appears to have no memory, or language, to all intents and purposes he has become an empty vessel devoid of all that we would perceive necessary for an individuals identity, in fact the only thing that marks him in any way is a name-tag inside the seaman's jacket he's wearing, with the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen and a handkerchief embroidered S.K.
He is taken to a hospital ship that is anchored nearby & administered to by a doctor who's origins are Finnish and it is he who recognises the name as that of a native of his homeland. The doctor (Petri Friari) has a troubled past with his native land due to the way his parents, particularly the way his father, was hounded by his fellow countrymen, then put to death as a communist traitor. All of this feeds into the way the doctor proceeds to help the man now known as Sampo, whom he sees as a version of himself & he takes on the task of restoring Sampo to the man he believes he is, by reacquainting him with what he perceives is his native tongue and then by repatriating him to Finland, with a letter introducing him to a fellow doctor.
Despite being in what he thinks could be his homeland, he remains rootless, almost a ghost figure haunting the society he happens to be with, incapable of forming a relationship with either himself or others, still trying to master a language which could provide the key to unlock the identity he feels is trapped within.
New Finnish Grammar demonstrates that not only is memory an important building block to identity but so is language, that it's purpose is not merely as an instrument for communication, but also 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.
All of this is played out against the backdrop of the last remaining years of the second world war, with Finland caught between Russia and Germany and is told via a manuscript Friari finds in 1946 which is
"written in a spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs, exercises in Finnish grammar & bits cut out of the Helsinki telephone directory".
This Friari interrupts with his own commentary adding explanations, adding his own reasoning/opinion on a particular event or remark. By using this technique Marani manages to create a tale of two men both at odds with their image of themselves, with their identity as individuals. He also asks questions such as to what extent learning/ re-learning a language affects who you are, like some blank canvas can you become a totally different individual or would you find yourself lost, torn from the roots of all that you were and what it is that binds all that a person is & within that binding are we all empty vessels, foundering in search of the something, someone that could save us.
This is a beautifully written book, that needs time to be absorbed & Judith Landry's translation of it, allowed me the opportunity to do that, to which she earns my heartfelt thanks.
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.
The book is ostensibly the journal kept by the recovering patient in 1943 and 1944, as he works to master the notorious difficulties of the Finnish language. It is pieced together and framed by Friari after the war, interspersed with his own commentary. For the doctor succeeds in getting Sampo transferred back to Helsinki, where he works as a hospital orderly while continuing his study of the language and culture. Two other people are especially important in his new life: an army chaplain named Olof Koskela, who introduces him to the rich stories of the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic), and Ilma Koivisto, a nurse who offers memories of a more personal sort. All this takes place against the background of the war on the border between Finland and Russia, the wounded being brought back to the hospital, and other men going off to fight and die. Friari's introduction, written after the war, makes it clear that his former patient is also dead. He is devastated by the realization that he had mistaken his nationality all along. He has condemned this man to spend the last year of his life delving deeper and deeper into an alien culture the hope of finding something that will connect him to his childhood, but all the time moving further and further from his personal truth.
Diego Marani lives by language. A senior linguist with the European Union in Brussels, he writes a weekly column for a Swiss newspaper in "Europanto," a synthetic language that he himself invented. He is clearly fascinated by Finnish. "In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative. The Finn does not like the idea of a subject carrying out an action; no one in this world carries out anything; rather, everything comes about of its own accord, because it must, and we are just one of many things which might have come about."
The bleak fatalism behind this grammatical statement perfectly sums up the mood of this tragedy, as it wends its course from icebound winter to the tormenting white nights of early summer. I won't say it is easy reading (even in this fine translation by Judith Landry). You will probably want to get out the atlas for the places and Google the history of Finland in the first half of the last century. It would help if you also have the music of Sibelius and the spirit of the Kalevala in your ear. But as you are reading, you will always be aware of an accomplished author dealing with matters of great profundity in a strikingly original way.