New Finnish Grammar
By Diego Marani
Translated by Judith Landry
Dedalus – £9.99
”When you are learning a new language, the first thing you learn is the noun; the word noun is associated with the word name, and naming a thing means knowing it. This is why we cannot pronounce the name of God, because it would be presumptuous to hope to know Him.”
Within these one-hundred and eighty-seven pages, the intellectualism of language is so pronounced, so considered, so well de-constructed, that by the time one has truly read and absorbed the words on one page, the next will trigger yet another trail of exquisite, exploratory endeavour.
Such is the density of language and depth within that of Diego Marani’s altogether suave, serene writing throughout New Finnish Grammar. A writing, beautifully constructed by its author and superbly translated by Judith Landry. Just one of the reasons I mention this is because Landry has had to translate a form of writing that is of the highest, most intense calibre: ”Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate: instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without. As a result, the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in upon itself; here meaning ripens slowly and then, when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive, leaving those who are not familiar with our language with the feeling that they have failed to understand what has been said. For this reason, when foreigners listen to a Finn speaking, they always have the sense that something is flying out of his mouth: the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight: it is this that you must catch, using your eyes and ears. Hands are no help. This is one of the loveliest things about the Finnish language” (my italics).
I felt compelled to make use of italics in the above, because within the context of this review (rather than the book as a whole), the immediacy of italics make the most acute sense with regards punctuating Marani’s rather colourful, substantive flight of literary fancy.
Moreover, this book isn’t entirely anchored within the parameters of (the Finnish) language; it is at heart, a quasi-disturbing account of self-analysis by way of what the science of language can sometimes entail.
Unable to speak and clearly disturbed by what has happened to him, a wounded sailor is found on a Trieste quay during World War II. With nothing to identify him except for a name tag that would suggest he is Finnish, a passing doctor takes it upon himself to restore both his memory and his sanity.
Within the protagonist’s recovery and self-discovery, we, as readers, are also taken on a journey that is powerful and provocative to say the least: ”The pitching, the black porthole, everything conspired to make me feel as though I were sinking slowly into a whirlpool, into a dark and cold abyss, peopled by monstrous fish. I felt weak, numb, unable even to cry. It was pitch-dark, both inside me and out. Grinding my teeth, I marshalled such rage as I could still summon up, and swore wordlessly at a God who could not hear me.”
Relentlessly surprising and beguiling, Diego Marani has herein written a novel that is simultaneously gentle and disturbing.