Man who lost his tongue

New Fin­nish Gram­mar

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott

By Diego Marani Text Pub­lish­ing, 197pp, $27.99

IHAVE to ask, testily, what kind of au­thor would call his first novel New Fin­nish Gram­mar? My guess is young, aca­demic, Ital­ian. I’m right. Diego Marani is a former aca­demic lin­guist who works in the Di­rec­torate-Gen­eral for In­ter­pre­ta­tion at the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. He in­vented a mock Euro­pean lan­guage called Europanto, which he likens to jazz be­cause the con­tent pre­vails over form. He has writ­ten a novel in it.

New Fin­nish Gram­mar was pub­lished in Italy in 2000 (when Marani was 30), won a pres­ti­gious Ital­ian prize but has not been trans­lated into English un­til now. The decade of wait­ing saw film di­rec­tor Christo­pher Nolan pop­u­larise sim­i­lar ideas in Me­mento and In­cep­tion. Nolan’s work may have seemed less thrilling to those who had read Marani.

Marani’s novel is not thrilling but it is a mys­tery and it is pro­found. One night in Septem­ber 1943 a young man is found on the quay in Tri­este with his head bashed in.

He is taken to a Ger­man hospi­tal ship where he is ex­pected to die, but un­der the in­ter­ested care of a Fin­nish-Ger­man doc­tor is nursed back to life. Of sorts. The vi­o­lence of his head trauma has left the young man with­out me­mory: he has no idea who he is or why he was on the quay.

He is also bereft of lan­guage. His tongue is ca­pa­ble only of noise and what comes to his ears from other peo­ple’s open mouths are sounds. Be­cause he was wear­ing the blue jacket of a Fin­nish sailor with the name Sampo Kar­jalainen on the tag and has a hand­ker­chief em­broi­dered with the same ini­tials in his pocket, it is as­sumed he is Fin­nish.

The doc­tor, a neu­rol­o­gist, whose own iden­tity and back­ground is trou­bled, starts to teach Sampo the lan­guage he be­lieves is his mother tongue. When Sampo has to be moved on the doc­tor ar­ranges for his pa­tient to be sent to Helsinki. Im­mersed in the smells, light and sounds of his na­tive Fin­land, Sampo, the doc­tor be­lieves, will have his best chance of re­turn­ing to him­self.

The nar­ra­tive, in one sense, is an in­struc­tion man­ual on how neu­ral sys­tems are ac­ti­vated that al­low us to learn speak­ing, read­ing and writ­ing, the es­sen­tials of iden­tity.

This can be fas­ci­nat­ing, although for those not es­pe­cially in­ter­ested it will be a case of a case too far about the in­tri­ca­cies of Fin­nish

Fin­nish Gram­mar New

The pro­tag­o­nist of

haunts the streets of Helsinki, try­ing to unghost’ him­self

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