The last surviving member of an archaic Siberian tribe is released from a gulag: this sounds nothing like the set-up for a thrillerish farce in the stThe last surviving member of an archaic Siberian tribe is released from a gulag: this sounds nothing like the set-up for a thrillerish farce in the style of David Lodge or Tom Sharpe. It's not quite played for laughs, but the academic vendetta of madly egotistical, and even more madly nationalist Helsinki-based Professor of Finno-Ugric Studies, Jarmo Aurtova, is, for at least the first two thirds of the book, like a plot one of those two could have come up with. (There's also an angry ex-wife, a slobbering dog, and a policeman who'd much, much rather be watching the ice hockey.)
Aurtova's problem with former colleague Olga Pavlovna's discovery of Ivan Vostyach - in historico-linguistic terms a sort of human coelacanth - is that the tribesman scuppers the professor's pet theories and his related ideas about the supremacy of the Finns. The (fictional) Vostyach language is the missing link between the Finno-Ugric and Eskimo-Aleut language families. Increasingly crazed Aurtova thinks it would be terrible PR for the Finns to be connected to "a bunch of Indians corralled into reservations, getting drunk and donning feather headdresses for tourists." (Paraphrase as I still can't find the exact quote - he says similar twice.) Finnish was gradually becoming the lingua franca of the Arctic Ocean. But now 'someone' was trying to throw Finland into the dustbin of history, together with the other conquered people who have no future. Eskimo-Aleut actually isn't considered to be closely related to other North American indigenous languages, so is it a sign of Aurtova's failing grip on reality that he connects the discovery with lower-48 Native Americans as well as seeing no interest or way to capitalise on this? (His apparent rejection of the wild folkiness of the Kalevala is quite different from the very little I know about Finnish nationalism - but then this book was written when Nokia was at its most successful, so perhaps modernity was very dominant.) Or is the implied relation of Finno-Ugric to other Amerindian languages and culture simply part of the fiction of the story? Petrovna mentions that the Vostyachs cook beavers in the same manner as the Potowatomi [who aren't actually extinct], and a couple of other similarities with Native Americans. Marani would appear to know altogether too much about linguistics to have made an unconscious error. I know something about the history and connections, but never got seriously into the fine detail about technical linguistic features - although looking up references for this book has reminded me of a few. There's almost certainly some humour in the use of linguistic terms for those who know them better. I know just enough about the subject for all the made-up facts to make me as excited as the best New Scientist article I'd read for a couple of years, but not enough to get picky about them. (It's also fascinating that Finnish - according to Pavlovna - has no future tenses. I wonder if it would feel different to think in a language which has none.)
Italian Eurocrat Marani is obviously deeply enamoured of Finland and its culture (see also New Finnish Grammar, published two years before this) - as well as of ideas about the power of language itself. Again here he's indulging his romantic ideas about north-eastern Europe, but it also makes the opinions hidden in the work far less glaring and preachy than if he had written about English speakers' reactions to a fossil language. (And twelve years after first publication, the increasing dominance of English via the internet, and concerns for the future even of smaller national languages, makes Aurtova's opinions even more surreal.)
There is a pacy, un-literary feel to quite a lot of the action. And the pages about Ivan Vostyach himself, his ancestral knowledge and connections with the natural world are very beautiful and idealised, like an earthier version of the rural-fantasy books I remember so fondly from childhood (Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper etc), or some of my own imaginings of pre-literate East & North European cultures - essentially the old world of Gaiman's American Gods - when I used to read about them and their languages in encyclopaedias around the same time. Apart from New Finnish Grammar I haven't read anything else which relates linguistic history to nature mysticism in the way I did then. These books are imperfect, nonetheless they are close to my heart. The narrative can send a shiver down the spine at the same time as one can suspect that it might be slightly cheesy to those who don't feel that way.
It was twenty years since Ivan had uttered a word, twenty years since the language spoken by the oldest tribe of the Proto-Uralic family, the Vostyachs, cousins of the Samoyeds, the wild bear hunters who once lived in the Byrranga Mountains and who scientists blieved to be extinct - had been heard anywhere in Northern Siberia. Hearing those sounds, all nature quaked. Things that had not been named for years emerged sluggishly from their long sleep, realizing they still existed....They were back, the men who could talk with wolves, who knew the names of the black fish hidden in the mud of the arctic lakes, of the fleshy mosses which, for a few summer days, purpled the rocks below the Tajmyr Peninsula; the men who had found the way out of the dark forests into another world but never the way back.
Vostyach also has a single word for "something grey glimpsed running in the snow".
Still, pre-gulag life could also be harsh and humans don't actually have the supremacy over nature that's strongly implied above: the old people of the village had talked of the time when the scourge of this powdery snow had first struck...The snow was like sand, some six feet deep, and walking on it might end in suffocation... [Hunters] were slowed down with [snow shoes] on their feet, and by the time they had drawn their bows their prey had fled...Men ate the drumskins, the bark of trees, such roots as had managed to push their way through the frozen ground...many lacked the strength even to dig or to collect firewood.
Pavlovna discusses the idea of Vostyach as noble savage a little, but altogether this revelry in the mystical feels like a consciously created (guilty) pleasure for those who understand the reality but know one can enjoy fantasy too. I liked Pavlovna a lot; she is one of those characters who is in a way a mouthpiece for ideas, but I found her inner conflicts and fascinations entirely understandable.
I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book so much that I was in a state of mind in which I wanted patterns of genre confirmed or at least more story that I liked. I loved it so much it was quite possibly going to be five stars. But the final third, in plotting, was more literary, less ideal, not nearly so emotionally satisfying or amusing. I didn't altogether like what happened, the childish crux of it. Although the ending could be interpreted as a set of entirely reasonable opinions about how rare languages and their speakers might be treated.
In a couple of other reviews I've mentioned that Dedalus should improve their covers, and this is the worst I've seen yet: boring, ugly and reflecting almost nothing of the fun of the book - hardly likely to generate much-needed extra sales from browsers in bookshops. Surely even if they can't afford bigshot professional designers like Random House, they can do better than this. ...more