The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott


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.

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