Book review: New Finnish Grammar

Diego Marani’s first novel, translated by Judith Landry, is encased in a dreary and nondescriptly grey book cover. The old saying about judging it because of this, however, is in this case distinctly correct, because the story itself is an extremely poetic, intelligent and stunningly written exploration of language, identity and belonging.

It begins with a young man, whom we come to know as Sampo, found wounded on a quayside, with no memory and without the ability to speak. The Doctor who finds him presumes he is Finnish because of the name sewn into the jacket he was wearing when found, and so begins the arduous journey of helping Sampo learn to speak the notoriously complex language of the Finns, with no other key to his personal history.

On travelling through a war-ruined Europe to reach his presumed homeland, Sampo struggles to come to terms with his forced identity and lives to try and remember a shred of his past life. Encouraged to socialise and move on with the present, he battles with the distinctly uneasy notion that he is “running headlong down the wrong road”, thrusted into a country wreaked with the destruction of war.

Half way through the story you realise that things certainly aren’t making sense for poor Sampo, the way he assumed things would if he kept living, learning, and delving into the language of his homeland. Whilst exploring the idea of national identity, the book also succeeds in proving to us that language can define a person’s world, and solely shape an individual’s life.

Translated smoothly from the original Italian manuscript, you can certainly tell that it has not been written by an English writer. The translation, whilst technically perfect, has a distinctive European disposition about it; it is melancholic and nostalgic, resonating with the tragedy of war and the shattered hopes of the desolate Sampo.

I will be honest and tell you that the translation does not make the book a comfortable read, which is perhaps not what you are looking for towards the end of term – maybe something quick, easy (even something downright trashy) is what you are craving right now when it comes to reading. But I would urge you to ignore these feelings. Though admittedly not a page-turner, and though complicated in places, this book is a fascinating read. Its use of language is wonderfully lyrical – in a way that I can’t help but think would only embarrass an English writer – but somehow Marani, a gifted Euorpean linguist, pulls it off with radical ease.

The story is simple, as the best stories usually are. Primarily about loss, existence and the importance of identity, its words will resonate with you long after you finish it – and I can guarantee you will pick it up again to re-read some of the most affecting and poignant passages. It is a sad and heavy story, but so beautifully written, you’ll be missing out on something special if you don’t go and buy it for yourself right now, and thank Marani for bringing it to your bookshelf.