A slim and rather solemn looking book, New Finnish Grammar is not the sombre read we might expect, based on appearance alone. Appearances do count, though, and the strange title stamped across this simple cover is an immediate hook, albeit a curious one – what on earth is a novel about Finnish grammar, let alone new Finnish grammar, like? Well, it wouldn’t do this bold novel justice to call it a language textbook – though, in a strange way, that is what it is. Diary, love story, cultural monologue, linguistic essay and heartbreaking tragedy, Diego Marani’s novel is far more than its title might suggest.
Set during the Second World War, New Finnish Grammar opens with a cultural and linguistic conundrum. A man wakes from a coma on board a ship in an Italian port. He is unable to speak. He has no language. His only means of identification is the name ‘Sampo Karjalainen’ sewn into his sailor’s jacket. He cannot remember anything, nor does he know who he is. On board is a Finnish doctor who, recognising the name as Finnish, resolves to teach him Finnish, and return him home.
So Sampo travels to German-occupied Finland in search of himself. But this is a time when war stole people’s pasts and cast a murky shadow over their futures, and a similar shadow settles over this novel from the outset. We are introduced to Sampo’s manuscript – a diary of sorts – via the words of his doctor, who confesses that ‘a cruel misunderstanding’ drove Sampo towards a false destiny. We learn that his manuscript is illegible, ungrammatical, and that – worryingly – the doctor decided to “fill in some of the gaps”. This editorial intervention, he believes, not only clarifies the story, but also allows him to reconstruct his own Finnish identity.
Such nebulous and unreliable beginnings establish a pattern. Sampo wanders Helsinki, increasingly estranged from the language and culture he painstakingly studies. One of the most poignant moments of Sampo’s self-education is when he declares that his favourite noun case – of the fifteen he learns – is one that expresses absence. In the same way, his fixation on language and identity is powerfully symbolised by his obsessive declension of his own name, again and again.
Perhaps in a novel about language and self – and, more importantly, about their connection – it is odd to discuss the words used in their expression, but the language of New Finnish Grammar is so precisely poetic that it deepens our understanding of Sampo’s trauma. We learn about the circularity of Finnish sentences, the eerie silence of its winter nights, the personality behind its words, phrases and sounds. Most beautiful of all is the use of sound, light and colour. Sampo pores over language, desperately hoping to find his identity, to a backdrop of white nights, silent skies and a strange sense of infinity.
Despite the unflinchingly intellectual and literary tone of New Finnish Grammar, this is a compelling read. Like Sampo, we are desperate to know who he is. He could be anyone, from anywhere in Europe – and in a way he represents the trauma experienced by every European during the War – but he is also a blank slate onto which other characters project or redraw their own identities. Who are we when we cannot speak? So much of ourselves is bound up in national language and culture, and Sampo becomes an emblem for a continent struggling to express itself among new borders, isolation, broken relationships and a desperate need to love. In this enigmatic, beautifully written and powerful novel, Sampo is hope and despair at once.
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