New Finnish Grammar
by Diego Marani
translated by Judith Landry
I find myself reading fewer and fewer newspaper reviews of books nowadays, partly because I'm lucky enough to get hold of many books before they appear in the review pages and partly because it isn't those reviews that will tend to guide me towards a book in the first place. That said I do keep an eye out and am particularly fond of Nicholas Lezard's pieces in the Guardian. He too is very keen on literature in translation, small independent presses, and titles that fall outside the usual, cosy definitions of literary fiction. His review of this novel from Daedalus Press was nothing short of ecstatic ('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.') so I had been holding this one on the shelf for a moment when I felt like I needed a sure-fire winner. I wasn't wrong. New Finnish Grammar may sound like a textbook but is in fact an utterly brilliant novel with a set-up so simple it can be explained in a couple of sentences, but which contains so many riches you could probably write another book as long as its 187 pages in order to discuss them all.
A prologue written by Petri Friari, neurologist at Hamburg's university hospital, explains the genesis of this found text: a manuscript found in a trunk at the military hospital of Helsinki together with a sailor's jacket, handkerchief, three letters, a volume of the Kalavela (a 19th century epic Finnish poem) and an empty bottle of koskenkorva (Finnish spirit). Pages of prose are interspersed with lists of verbs and Finnish grammar exercises, newspaper cuttings and drawings. This disordered rabble coaxed into clear meaning by this doctor with knowledge of the facts behind it. 'I myself have often had to intervene, adding linking passages of my own to tie up unrelated episodes....Using the scalpel of memory, I carved out words which ached like wounds I had believed to be long healed.' This is because it is Friari who had driven the author of this manuscript 'towards a fate which was not his own' and now all that remains of him is this book. Friari's wish to ensure he is remembered is also a wish 'to reconstruct my own story, my own identity, through other eyes.' His own story is one of exile, hatred at those responsible for his father's death, and his damnation. All of that potential is summarised in just the first three pages. We have mystery, memory, identity and a text that has already been tampered with. Yummy.
In September 1943 a seriously wounded man is found on the quay in Trieste. Friari, then the doctor on a German hospital ship, attends to this unconscious soldier who has no documents that can identify him and who isn't expected to survive, so severe are the injuries to his head in particular. He pulls through however but on regaining consciousness is unable to explain who he is or where he is from. He has no memory of the incident that felled him and no idea even what language he might speak. He is almost a blank slate, aware of the world and how it works but with no sense of self, of personal history.
Later on, I thought back to that sensation almost with regret. For just a few days I was untouched by memory, free from recall, released from pain. I was just a bundle of cells, a primitive organism like those which peopled the earth millions of years ago.
The only clue to his identity is a label in his jacket that reads Sampo Karjalainen which together with a handkerchief embroidered with the initials S.K leads Friari to conclude that this man is Finnish like himself. And so he sets about teaching him his language once again, a language notorious for its complexity (there are 15 different cases for nouns for example) a fact well known by Marani who is a senior linguist for the European Union and inventor of Europanto, a language which allows the user to draw on words from multiple European languages with no fixed rules except the ease of communication; something un petit como esta, I guess. There is something fascinating about reading the now lucid account of 'Sampo' and the slow progress he makes towards finding a voice.
A light dusting, a sprinkling of sounds had gradually settled on the smooth rock of my mind, becoming denser and more full-bodied over time. A rich, deep humus had formed, where words were now taking root and thriving.
It is not only the complexity of Finnish or even the severity of his head injury that makes this journey so slow and painstaking, underneath it all there is always the hint that 'Sampo' is trying to teach his brain to do something it hasn't done before. We don't need to worry about that just now but it adds another layer of intrigue to the various attempts to find the right catalyst to unlock his personal history. Once Sampo has recovered sufficiently from his injuries Friari sends him to Helsinki where it is hoped another doctor will be able to help him. He also advises him to find a woman and fall in love, the hope being that the desire to communicate who he is to an object of affection will light up the right neural pathways. Whilst he never gets to meet this other doctor he does get taken under the wing of an extraordinary military chaplain who teaches him not only more of the Finnish language but the very culture and history that lies within it, these discussions often fuelled by the frequent libations from a bottle of clear Finnish spirit.
This, I learned, was called koskenkorva and was extremely strong. What was particularly magical about that little bottle was that throughout all those months it remained half-full, as it had been at the beginning, however much we sipped from it. This was the personal miracle worked by the Military Chaplain Olof Koskela.Koskela's speciality is the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, a poem so important to Finnish identity that it played a crucial role in the country's desire for independence from Russia in 1917 (this is important also for the story of Friari, whose father was killed as a result of the factional divisions that arose in that period - Sampo is a man in search of his past, whereas Friari is a Finn in exile from his own). The extract below will give you an example of his declamatory style and the way in which the concept of language is brought to life throughout the book.
'These are not just words! This is a revealed cosmogony, the mathematics that holds the created world in place! Ours is a logorithmic grammar: the more you chase after it, the more it escapes you down endless corridors of numbers, all alike yet subtly different, like the fugues of Bach! Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate: instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without. As a result, the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in upon itself; here meaning ripens slowly and then, when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive, leaving those who are not familiar with our language with the feeling that they have failed to understand what has been said. For this reason, when foreigners listen to a Finn speaking, they always have the sense that something is flying out of his mouth: the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight; it is this that you must catch, using your eyes and ears. Hands are no help. This is one of the loveliest things about the Finnish language!'
And what of that quest to fall in love? Well our hero does meet a nurse, called Ilma whose very name is relevant, meaning air, 'like what you breath; or indeed what the weather is like...But, above all, the name Ilma means freedom. Because it lets you free to be what you are, to go where you want: free as air.' But freedom is perhaps exactly what Sampo doesn't require, as rootless as he is at this moment and he struggles to follow the doctor's advice when he enjoys so much the suffering of his solitude. The freedom to be whatever you are is no use to the man who doesn't know who he is and Sampo inevitably ends up seeking pattern and routine whilst all the while maintaining the semblance of a struggle against his predicament. And what if, as hinted at earlier, that struggle is in the wrong direction? It is Friari who suggests that this struggle is applicable to all of us in our search for meaning and identity, that perhaps we are all like Sampo as we struggle to make sense of our place in the world. And that is what lifts this book into another realm altogether, not simply interesting and innovative, clever and compelling but also profound, universal and tragically human.
Sometimes human thought gets lost in the warren of its own logic, becomes a slave to a geometry which is an end in itself, whose aim is no longer the understanding of reality, but the bolstering of some prior assumption. We are such monstrous egoists that we would rather destroy ourselves pursuing false truths than admit that we are on the wrong track...many take refuge in faith in some supreme being...But, if God existed, He would have made us in a different mould, either total prisoners of the matter from which he forged us, or else completely unshackled by thraldom to our minds: either his equals or his slaves. He would not have abandoned his creatures in this condition halfway between damnation and beatitude.