BORDERS ARE LIKE LANGUAGE AND GRAMMAR: FLIMSY, FICTIONAL THINGS
is an declension. this novel.
Helsinki is a temporary, chaotic world. Sampo haunts the streets trying to unghost himself. He is befriended by a drug-taking logorrhoeaic Lutheran pastor who tells him parts of the most famous Finnish book of folk poetry, the Kalevala. Meanwhile Russian troops mass on the border.
Borders are like language and grammar: flimsy, fictional things suitable for the times in which they were made and constantly moving. Finland gained independence from Russia only in 1917 and the language itself is relatively new and dynamic with vast borrowings from
reading other languages. The first Finnish novel was published as late as 1870. All this is new to me, I am embarrassed to say.
Marani probes questions of identity and selfperception in a world that is in constant flux. Without language we can express no memory and without memory, especially shared memory, we have no grip on identity.
Sampo is the exact reverse of the terrible ‘‘ locked-in syndrome’’ that Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote about in the dazzling, agonising The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1997). Bauby knew every infinite variety of self but until he learned a system of expression contained solely in his left eyelid he was condemned to solitude; Sampo, intelligent and capable, knows and learns hourly all about the external world but his internal world is locked in darkness.
The melancholy Finnish-German doctor has this advice as Sampo departs for Helsinki: I speak now as a man, not as a doctor. Since language is our mother, try and find yourself a woman. It is from a woman that we come into this world, from a mother that we learn to speak. Fall in love . . . Switch off your brain and follow your heart. You must fall in love with a voice, and with every word you hear it utter.
Sampo commits these words to his memory ‘‘ as a frozen block of sound within which I could discern some meaning’’. There is a woman, a Red Cross nurse, but love is not the axe for his internal frozen sea. Marani implies that without an authentic mother tongue one disintegrates.
New Finnish Grammar is exhilarating and exhausting. The ideas provoke but the presentation is that particular specialisation, Italian intellectual. (Reviewer alert: I find Umberto Eco unbearable.) This book is not recommended holiday reading in the heat despite the frozen country setting because it requires concentration, memory, reflection. But here is the beautiful point: if you do read it you will never again be cavalier about having and using a language. And you will be eager to try the Europanto novel.