Last week the Guardian lamented the malaise in 21st century [English] publishing but there is hope as long as they continue to buy and translate the gems being published on the European mainland. One such is the New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, first published in Italy in 2000 and now available in English thanks to Dedalus Books. Nicholas Lezard commented that he couldn't 'remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word "genius" of its author'. Perhaps 'genius' is rather strong as he leaves many questions unanswered in the text but nevertheless, as Josipovici said of it, 'what he has produced is still a cut above what passes for serious fiction in this country'.
The story is deceptively simple and straightforward which will reassure those who tire of the time leaps and split narratives of the postmoderns! A severely wounded unidentified sailor is found in Trieste in 1943 and taken on to a German hospital ship where he comes under the care of a Dr Friari. When the wounded man awakes from his coma, he has no memory, no knowledge of either where he comes from or who he is but most profoundly, he has no language. As he himself says, 'All linguistic feeling, all interest in words, had died away'. Dr Friari, himself an exile from Finland since childhood, assumes the man is Finnish as the label sewn on his jacket has the name Sampo Karjalainen, a Finnish name. The doctor determines to get Sampo well enough to return to Finland and, in the meantime, starts to teach him Finnish which he assumes to be his mother tongue. He could hardly have started on a more difficult course as Finnish has to be Europe's most complicated language where even the nouns have multiple declensions.
Sampo does get to Helsinki where his recovery continues and language skills grow apace under the guidance of an extraordinary pastor, the military chaplain, Olof Koskela. an ebullient, extrovert giant of a man, steeped in Finnish folklore and fond of a daily tincture of koskenkorva. He also attempts a relationship with a nurse, Ilma. He realises quickly enough that to rediscover his true past is an impossibility and that Dr Friari was right - 'language is our mother, and it is through language that we come into this world'. The account of his time in the military installation in Helsinki is fascinating and Marani maintains the suspense and keeps us avid to learn his identity to the very end.
This is a story about war and love and memory and particularly about language - not surprising as the author, Marani, is a linguist in the EU. There are thorny questions that Marani dodges as he ignores the Ghost in the Machine. Sampo discovers at an early stage that he recognises objects and what they are for - he has therefore retained the concept of 'knowing how' but not the one of 'knowing that'. He also acknowledges early on that without language there is no memory but nevertheless he says on the second page that 'even in my confusion I remembered that there was a war on ... my thoughts seemed to well up out of nothingness and then sink down again into the porous soil of my unfocused consciousness'. Thoughts? Was he picturing to himself in auditory or visual images? Thinking is normally interpreted as an operation with symbols such as words and sentences but Marani does not go there. [For any reader interested in this aspect, Gilbert Ryle has written a very original text on the subject called The Concept of Mind]. The story is told by both Dr Friari and Sampo and Sampo's language in writing gets rather sophisticated at a stage when he apparently can barely make himself understood to others. However, none of these thought-provoking questions in anyway detract from Marani's exquisite piece of work.
I agree with Lezard that this is definitely an extraordinary book.