Book Review: New Finnish Grammar, Diego Marani (Dedalus Books)
A man is found battered and close to death on the quayside in Trieste during World War II. His identity is unknown and the man himself has completely lost his memory. Who he is and why he was so violently attacked remains unknown. Is he Sampo Karjalainen, a Finnish name inscribed inside the seaman’s jacket he is wearing. This is the starting point for the novel New Finnish Grammar by the Italian Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry.
In itself the story of someone with no known identity and no memory of the past is a familiar one, evoking non-fictional cases like that of Kasper Hauser, literary fiction like The English Patient and Hollywood movies like The Bourne Identity. This novel pushes the conceit to its limit for the man found on the Trieste quayside has also lost his language. He is shown a map of Europe by a doctor on a hospital ship and can recognise different shapes created by the lines representing the various borders but the names of the countries mean nothing to him:
Even the letters, which I thought I knew one by one, which I had the feeling I could write without difficulty, had now become signs without sounds, mute hieroglyphics from some vanished civilization.
Odysseus, trapped in a cave with a ferocious giant, called himself Noman when the Cyclops inquired about his identity and it proved to be a life-saving name but for the man wearing a seaman’s jacket the moniker Sampo Karjalainen brings very different consequences. He really is a noman, able to recognise things and interact with his world but only non-linguistically:
Then, urgent as a desire to vomit, I felt the sudden need to speak. Once again I had the feeling of obstruction. My head was spinning and I felt a shower of stabbing pain swarming behind my eyes like sparks. I opened my mouth, hoping to produce some sound, but all that came out was a gasp of air. I realized that my tongue, my mouth, my teeth were incapable of coherent speech. The air passed from my throat to my palate only to dissolve into a forlorn sigh.
The doctor on the German hospital ship comes originally from Finland and, thinking his patient hails from the same country, starts to teach him the language, allowing his patient to bring the world into being by saying the names of things, as in the Dylan song ‘Man Gave Name To All The Animals’. But in the process of doing so the learner becomes acutely conscious of the fact that this is what he is doing, unlike most people who acquire language without the consciousness that we are bringing a world into existence. This is his undoing. He tries to ground himself in the Finnish language, and succeeds to some degree, but the essential groundlessness of this and any language robs him of the illusion that enables the rest of us to go about our business in the fond belief that words can be laid down like a ruler to measure and align reality.
The doctor who teaches his patient to speak is himself trying to reconstruct his own troubled identity. His socialist father had been killed by right wing forces during Finland’s civil war following the Bolsehvik revolution in neighbouring Russia and he had ended up in Germany as a young man. He thinks he is repatriating his patient, whom he takes to be Sampo Karjalainen, to Helsinki in the hope that there he will rediscover his full identity. As a kind of doppelganger, the man who will find himself there will redeem the doctor’s own forsaken national identity. In Finland the man called Sampo Karjalainen meets a Dr Friari who carries on the task started on the hospital ship, introducing him to nationalist folklore, and he also meets a loving nurse who offers him the prospect of building a fresh life for himself. It is not easy to do, for like Oedipus he is relentlessly driven to seek out his true identity whatever the price this entails.
In an Australian aboriginal legend, Wanjina creates the world by giving names to things but he has his mouth sealed up by his father who fears he will make too many things. The man called Sampo Karjalainen seals up his own mouth, literally unable to reply to the nurse who holds out the possibility of a life with a newly-forged Finnish identity, because he is too painfully aware that such an identity is a fictional act, a subjectivity without substance, and he cannot be satisfied with the pretence that constitutes the sense of selfhood that is uncritically acquired in the process of growing up within a language. One of the things he does like about the Finnish language is its abessive case:
Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva [a Finnish spirit drink], no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have. All the best words in this world should be declined in the abessive!
Marani’s novel is not as cerebral as all this might seem for the novel’s underlying tone is a poetic melancholy – though along the way the reader is left wanting to know more about Finland’s civil war and the country’s role in World War II. It may also leave you wanting to apply the abessive to the Kalevala, the epic poem that Dr Friari recounts in his attempt to make noman a Finn, for like many such epics that have been painted and tainted in nationalist colours we might be better off without them. New Finnish Grammar is very much a story about the need to belong but perhaps the author places too much weight on the role of language and race in our profound need for a sense of home and solidarity; after all there are other ways of belonging and not belonging, like class, and a consideration of other kinds of solidarity might have helped avoid the disconsolate quietism that runs moodily through this novel, like a murky waterway too shallow to navigate and lead somewhere useful.
Sean Sheehan is the author of a forthcoming book on Slavoj Žižek: Zizek: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum Books) due in January 2012.