Linguistic thriller with a touch of northern noir
The Last of the Vostyachs
By Diego Marani Translated by Judith Landry Text Publishing, 176pp, $27.99
THIS is a novel about the sole surviving speaker of an ancient Siberian language who is discovered by a Russian expert on Samoyedic dialects who makes the fatal mistake of telling a Helsinki-based professor of Finno-Ugric languages about it.
To complicate linguistic matters further, The Last of the Vostyachs was written 11 years ago in yet another language, Italian, before being translated, last year, into English.
The wild man in question is Ivan, a Vostyach of the Tajmyr Peninsula in northern Siberia and a former gulag inmate whose language causes all nature to quake and makes men want to pray.
A kind of philological Holy Grail for academics seeking a Siberian connection between the ancient languages of the Baltic and those of North America, Ivan’s lateral fricative with labiovelar overlay, ‘‘ the mysterious semi-consonant of the American Indians’’, attracts the attention of the Russian philologist Olga when he stumbles into the remote village where she is conducting her research.
The professor to whom Olga confides about Ivan is Jarmo Aurtova, the villain of the piece, whose theories of Finnish ethnolinguistic superiority are upended by the discovery and who therefore decides to ensure it never becomes public knowledge.
Diego Marani’s obsession with language, translation and meaning should come as no surprise. In addition to working as a translator for the European Commission, he has invented his own language, Europanto, which he has used to write articles for various newspapers, and his previously published novel, New Finnish Grammar, was animated by similar concerns as the one under review.
It is to the credit of Marani’s translator, Judith Landry, that the only questions surrounding language and translation that occur to the reader of The Last of the Vostyachs are the ones posed by the author, most notably during a lengthy dialogue between Olga and Aurtova in a sauna in the middle of the book.
Praise for the translation would doubtless disgust the imperious Aurtova, who at one point condemns translation wholesale on the grounds it ‘‘ causes a language to become soiled; like blood in a transfusion, which is gradually tainted by impurities’’. This evocation of blood and purity, with its nasty, 19th-century undertones, hints at the lengths to which the professor is capable of going. While in some ways the most engaging character — that’s villainy for you — when it comes to his ideas, it is clear Aurtova is a deliberate caricature, a fictional mouthpiece for every view of language that Marani considers dangerous, idiotic, or both.
Against these, he offers the idealistic pluralism of Olga, whose suggestion that ‘‘ every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive’’ may be naive, but whose love of ‘‘ language in all its forms’’ is the only realistic approach to our polyglot world: we must turn Babel on its head, take the curse and make it a blessing. But it would be remiss to suggest language, while at the heart of the book, is its sole preoccupation. There are great dollops of genre, too, the book at times resembling a northern noir, not in the vein of the Danish television series The Killing, as some have suggested, but more like the Coen brothers’ film Fargo.
Indeed the strength of The Last of the Vostyachs is less Marani’s intellectual musings than the manner and momentum with which he moves his characters around at the service of the plot. At times it feels like a children’s spirograph set, each character a different coloured pen, whirling across Helsinki and the page, their trajectories occasionally intersecting as the full pattern slowly takes shape.
It is therefore a shame, when one finally pulls the plastic template and triangle-toothed gears away, that the resultant mandala feels slightly less than the sum of its parts, slightly less complex than the process of drawing it had hinted at. This has something to do with a certain backing-off in the book’s final third, a refusal to commit fully to a number of the lines of narrative possibility previously opened up. A Siberian tiger on the streets of Helsinki that comes to naught? It feels suspiciously like a broken promise.