New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry
Published by The Text Publishing Company
Reviewed by C P Howe
New Finnish Grammar received the Grinzane-Cavour Prize, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award, and comes with an impressive array of plaudits. The most prominent is featured on the cover: The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard says, ‘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.’ It is impossible to come to this book without high expectations and, for me, they were definitely met.
On the surface New Finnish Grammar has an admirable simplicity, but its strength lies in its many layers. Marani is a professional translator and there can be no doubt about his love of language. He invented Europanto, a mock European language, in which he writes newspaper columns. It comes as no surprise, then, that New Finnish Grammar is, at one level, about language.
The main character, Sampo, has no memory of who he is or where he came from. Because he is wearing the clothes of a Finnish sailor when he is found in Trieste, the doctor who treats him – a man called Friari, a Finn who left his country many years before – assumes Sampo is Finnish. Friari sends Sampo to Helsinki to better enable him to recover his Finnish identity and re-learn his language.
In Helsinki the conflict known as The Winter War between Russia and Finland features heavily, deeply affecting Sampo as he sees people come and go, and tries to understand some of what is being said around him. Sampo’s loneliness, his despair, and his decisions about what to do with his life are at the heart of the story. This alone would make it special, but it is the way Marani chooses to tell Sampo’s story that takes it to another level.
The novel is presented as a series of extracts from Sampo’s journals as found, and transcribed, by Friari who has finally travelled back to Helsinki, troubled by unresolved issues in his own life as well as his actions towards Sampo. The premise is that Sampo simply did not have sufficient a grasp of Finnish to write coherently, and that Friari has edited, augmented and interpreted Sampo’s journals so they can be understood. Friari also includes some narrative of his own from time to time including a prologue which is, really, Marani’s masterstroke. It is rich in information and foreshadowing, setting the context for everything that happens within the remaining 190-odd pages, without spoiling anything.
The approach Marani has taken is similar to Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music, which I reviewed in July. In The Big Music Gunn claims she was ‘presented’ with boxes of papers, written by someone else, which she ‘ordered and organised’ into the book. The author’s narrative in The Big Music appears not in italics, like Friari’s, but in the form of copious footnotes and appendices. Of course, in The Big Music, the ‘Kirsty Gunn’ who organised the papers and wrote the footnotes is as much a fictional character as Friari.
The idea that Marani wrote this in Italian adds another layer to the linguistic complexity on the page. The subtlety of the story and the language comes through clearly, but I wondered at times whether something had been lost in the translation to English. It feels flat in places and Judith Landry, the translator, employs the term ‘as if’ constantly. Was it more lively, more varied, in the original Italian? Or are we seeing Friari presenting his adaptation of Sampo’s journals in precisely the way Marani intended?
Nevertheless, New Finnish Grammar is a deeply moving novel. It is not long, coming in at just under 200 pages in the English version, but every page conveys the tragedy and the tenacity of Sampo. By showing us Sampo through the double lens of his journals and Friari’s adaptation of them, Marani puts distance between the reader and Sampo. We imagine we hear Sampo speaking directly, but it is Friari’s interpretation of Sampo’s journal. It is as if a beneficial uncle is speaking on behalf of a child, filling in the gaps he thinks the child should know, but really projecting his own thoughts, beliefs and desires. How much of what we read is Sampo, how much is what Friari wants to believe Sampo was thinking, and how much is what Friari wants the reader to believe Sampo was thinking? All of this is coloured and set up from the outset by Friari’s prologue, and results in a novel that is a masterful, subtle construction of personality and meaning.
For me there was yet another layer of intrigue, but it came from the author, not the novel. Thirty years ago I worked at a children’s holiday camp in Devon, in the UK. I was 18. One of the kitchen hands was a man called Diego, slightly older than me. It was only after I’d finished New Finnish Grammar that I looked more closely at the photograph on the back cover. The glasses. The shape of the mouth. I checked Wikipedia – Marani was three years older than me. I e-mailed his publisher asking that they pass my message, and the attached photograph, on to the author. Diego’s reply was waiting for me the next morning.
Diego is coming to New Zealand in 2013 on a promotional tour, and we’ll catch up for sure. Who knows what we might remember about the past, what might come to light about that distant summer, once we start talking?