Antonomasia's Reviews > New Finnish Grammar

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
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Jan 17, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: nordic, italy, 2014, iffp, finland, btba, ebooks-kindle, decade-2000s

Feb 2014.
[4.5] A powerful little book (under 200 pages), intelligent, emotional and contemplative all at once in a very Continental way, that would have been best read in a few long sittings rather than in countless snippets between watching Olympic events on TV or whilst half asleep.

I've had this for about three years, vacillating: although I very much wanted to read another book about Finland, would an Italian author really give anywhere near so true a sense of the country as a local would?

Like Lolita, New Finnish Grammar begins with a professional's "introduction" outlining the protagonist's fate, so none of the following is as spoilery as it may sound. A man is found unconscious and badly beaten in Trieste in 1943, wearing a Finnish naval jacket name-tagged Sampo Karjaleinen. He is taken aboard a German hospital ship, where he is found to have amnesia and to be speechless, and is attentively cared for by a doctor, himself originally a Finn and who begins to (re)teach the man their presumed shared language before sending him (back) to Finland. There he is taken under the wing of a military chaplain with shamanic sympathies, who teaches him Finnish and folklore. The man's real name was Massimiliano Brodar; perhaps this is a reference to Kafka's friend and literary executor Max Brod, except that the role is reversed. Brod didn't follow Kafka's instructions, and here - although the doctor has already, with the very best of intentions, messed with Karjaleinen / Brodar's words and realises his terrible mistake - Brodar's papers are re-written as the novel to make them coherent and expressive.

You don't have to have read the Kalevala, have a certain amount of fascination with the linguistics of the stranger European languages and with Finland to read this... but it helps. (And in order to understand the opening scenes of rather a good film The Cuckoo set in Finland at the same time, I'd already read about the complicated Continuation War involving Finns, Russians and Germans.) In New Finnish Grammar there is quite a bit of conversation about the Finnish national epic, where the stories are well explained - an amnesiac is being told about it after all - but, not knowing it was there, I was really happy to have timed reading New Finnish Grammar less than a year after the poem. The ideas about its characters here were mostly a close match for those in the OUP introduction to the Kalevala and what I'd got from reading it; sometimes they were more beautifully expressed than in the translated epic. When I was a kid / teenager, I loved reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica articles about the history of languages. (Furthering this interest never really got off the ground because rather like visitors being the best incentive to expend limited energy and focus on tidying, I need the motivation of foreign travel for serious language learning post-school, and my health has been too poor... If a magic wand were waved and I was made perfectly healthy, travel, language learning, sports, restaurants and music lessons would crowd my spare hours to make up for lost time.) I was always most fascinated to read about non-Romance, non-Teutonic languages, and the languages of Northern and Eastern Europe, unusual ones like the Finno-Ugric family or obscure extinct ones like Tocharian. This blurred with an interest in the social and religious history of pre-Christian times in those bits of Europe which weren't in the well-known mythologies (Classical or Norse). And on reflection, I'm not sure I've seen anyone actually put that semi-mystical sense of ancient-ness and such fine detail about language in one place quite like this before - it felt perfectly natural to me as I'd sort of always seen it that way. This book could perhaps be less enjoyable if you don't joyfully geek out at the mention of types of noun case and verb forms which don't exist in English, wondering how different the world might be understood through Finnish.
- The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bend them to our needs.
- If we have two distinct words for east in Finnish, it is so as to avoid having to use the same word both for dawn, and for the direction from which the Slav invasions come.
- The Finn does not like the idea of a subject carrying out an action; no one in this world carries out anything; rather everything comes about of its own accord, because it must, and we are just one of the many things that might have come about. In the Finnish sentence the words are grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest to the verb becomes the subject. In European languages the sentence is a straight line; in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.
All presented as the idiosyncratic musings of one man, and wouldn't necessarily stand up to scientific dissection, but if you have sympathy with this sort of thing, it is lovely.

What do Finnish people think of all this? That was what counted. Using a lazy search for diego marani suomi, I found a few articles to stick in Google Translate. (The most useful ones are here and here.) It sounds as though Marani has got the essence of the place right, though small details about how people regard historical figures (Mannerheim) could be questioned and there are some inaccuracies in actual Finnish phrases. The second piece says that the characters' voices are not sufficiently differentiated - this was the same in the English translation and was most noticeable in a set of directly quoted letters in the penultimate chapter. The doctor / "editor"'s own style could have made everything else sound similar - but not, plausibly, those.

Perhaps obviously from the plot, New Finnish Grammar is also a meditation on memory (specifically factual / intellectual recall from before his injury - Karjaleinen does not suffer from two of the other most distressing aspects of memory problems: his basic civilised social conduct is unaffected, and he is able to lay down new memories without difficulty) - and on how essential nationality and language are to a person's sense of identity. (Because I read the book in such a fragmented way, and because memory is a frequent subject in literary fiction - though rarely written about in such a lovely way - I sometimes found it a tad repetitive in the middle.) These reflections were always beautifully expressed; earlier in the book I understood what was meant whilst wanting to quibble, then later the characters arrived at similar conclusions.

New Finnish Grammar is a beautiful and romantic account of terrible things; whilst it's not fantasy you couldn't quite call it realistic. In the more specific sense of romantic love, the narrative's attitude seems very Italian (or French), like nothing Nordic I've ever read.

Background knowledge did help, but given that I acquired most of that from reading easily accessible general encyclopaedias (old ones or Wiki), and that the novel explains things quite well, it's not really that obscure, or essential to enjoying the Marani's book.

In the past week or two I've been looking bookwise mostly at recent European fiction, and suddenly there are quotes from Nick Lezard everywhere (on this book, plenty of those I've been browsing, and some others I've had for a while and haven't read). I've rarely read his column ... presumably this is the sort of stuff he specialises in.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Suvi (new)

Suvi Seems like a beautiful little book, the quotes at least are fantastic. Being a Finn myself, I always find it interesting to see what others think about our tiny country.


Antonomasia Thank you for commenting! It would be great to hear what you think of the book if you get a chance to read it.


message 3: by Tytti (new)

Tytti "If we have two distinct words for east in Finnish, it is so as to avoid having to use the same word both for dawn, and for the direction from which the Slav invasions come."

I wonder what the other word for 'itä' is...


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