Man who lost his tongue
New Finnish Grammar
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
The protagonist of
haunts the streets of Helsinki, trying to unghost’ himself