Lin­guis­tic thriller with a touch of north­ern noir

The Last of the Vosty­achs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew Clay­field Matthew Clay­field

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.

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