New Finnish Grammar
by Diego Marani (Nuova Grammatica Finlandese, 2000)
translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (2011)
Dedalus (2011)
187 pp

Yesterday, the finalists for the Best Translated Book Award were announced, and I have to say I was slightly surprised to find among the title Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar. Its placement in the list of finalists seems to cement my status as an outlier here. When I finished the book I went searching online to see how others felt about it, and, well, most of the reviews I read were very positive. In New Statesman, even Gabriel Josipovici, whose good opinion seems to be very difficult to attain, had the following (is it faint?) praise: “Yet what he has produced is still a cut above what passes for serious fiction in this country” (he does call it a “remarkable” novel earlier) (click here for the review). In The Independent, Rosie Goldsmith called it a “beautifully written, intelligent novel” (click here for the review). A bit closer to my home, at The Complete Review M.A. Orthofer gave the book a B+, which is high marks there (click here for the review). And, giving the highest praise I found, at The Guardian Nicholas Lezard had this to say: “Deep and rich, did I say? That isn’t the half of it. I can’t remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word ‘genius’ of its author” (click here for the review).

So, yes, I am an outlier on this one, so take this review — as always — with a grain of salt.

And it isn’t that I didn’t like New Finnish Grammar. I actually agree with most of what the above-referenced reviews have to say about it. I’m usually a big fan of any book that examines memory, language, or identity, and this book examines all three and, better yet, examines how they intersect.

The book begins with a short prologue written by the Finnish neurologist Petri Friari. Though born in Finland, by World War II Friari was an expatriate working for the German Navy. In 1943, his ship comes upon a soldier who has been severely injured. The wounded man has no memory, no language, and, for that matter, no identity — not to others and not even to himself. A label on the injured man’s jacket, though, leads Friari to believe the man is Finnish; indeed, that the man’s name is Sampo Karjalainen. Friari undertakes to reteach “Sampo” Finnish and, eventually, even sends him on his way to Finland with a letter, hoping the familiar sights, sounds, and smells might help him to fully recover.

We know right from the prologue, though, that something went terribly wrong. Friari has realized that he made a mistake, leading the injured man to an awful fate. All he has now is a manuscript Sampo wrote, trying to explain his story, though he never gained control of Finnish. That manuscript makes up the better part of this book, though Friari has taken the liberty to, uh, clean it up a bit:

My knowledge of the facts which lay behind this document has enabled me to reconstruct the story that it tells, to rewrite it in more orthodox language and to fill in some of the gaps. I myself have often had to intervene, adding linking passages of my own to tie up unrelated episodes. Adjectives left in the margins, nouns doggedly declined in the more complex cases of the Finnish language, all traced the outlines of a story which was well-known to me. In this way I have been able to coax these pages to yield up something that they were struggling in vain to tell.

This may have been one area where I struggled with the book. It’s an interesting concept that Friari creates yet another degree of removal by cleaning up Sampo’s scribblings (in the process changing who knows what), and I probably should take that for what it’s worth. I feel, though, that this cleansing actually hindered my connection with the world and with Sampo. Perhaps that is the intended effect, though; still, the entire book came off as “beautifully” written (despite the quotes, I mean the book is beautifully written) because it all seems to be from one voice, detracting, for me, from the problems of identity it wants us to grapple with.

Putting that issue I had aside, there is a genuine sense of intrigue when Sampo arrives in Finland and attempts to find himself. Everything, though, is completely foreign, giving Marani an opportunity to examine the process of language building, of myth-making, and of creating a national identity and well as an individual identity. For all the good intentions behind his fraudulent repatriation and the clean slate you’d think the forces of the Finnish language had to work on, Sampo is prevented from integrating into this culture and language.

We had mingled but not totally bonded, Finland and I; something in me remained untouched by this mingling, as though deep down some buried identity was refusing to be wiped out and was struggling furiously to rise to the surface.

And the book is very sad. There is a real Sampo Karjalainen and he has real parents, and, of course, they know the Sampo who eventually visits them is not their son. So this Sampo is alone, and even the Finnish language is against him. As Friari says at one point, “A language’s prescriptive baggage comes into being less to facilitate its comprehension, than to prevent foreigners’ access to it.” Sampo doesn’t know what he’s lost, but he’s struggling to find it. On the other hand, Friari has too good a memory and cannot get away from his own past. To make matters worse, now he has the fate of the injured Sampo to deal with.

It really is all quite interesting, and no doubt others will love every page of this book. For me, though — whether because everything, even the broken Finnish, is filtered by Friari, or because Marani allows the plot to be overtaken by Finnish mythology and cultural history — the book was a bit hard to engage with directly. Indeed, there were many times while reading that I drifted away. Of course I realize that this is often my own fault, and the good opinions of others indicates I’m at fault here; despite that, I’ve gone through the book again since finishing it and have to say my experience with large portions of this fairly short book was the same.

All of that said, I’m still very happy that I read this book and thank the Best Translated Book Award for bringing it to my attention.

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