Book Review: New Finnish Grammar (Diego Marani)

Finnish is an ugly language. At least that’s how I read it, as transcribed in its scraps in Marani’s novel (English translation, Dedalus, 2011). This is somewhat contrary to the intention of the author who, at great pains, attempts to convince the reader of the ineffable beauty of the curious and practically unique poetry inherent in the language’s spoken form. Perhaps Marani may have a point to make about the liquidity and sing-song nature of the language in the aural realm (the few Finnish people I’ve met, on reflection, did seem to have a somewhat melodic nuance to their spoken English); however, describing this aural sensation on paper is on a par with the oft-quoted description of jazz — that is, compare ‘written jazz’ with dancing to architecture.

All this is an aside because this book’s delvings into language are a vehicle to explore its main theme: identity. It’s a touch ironic then that New Finnish Grammar also has its own, presumably unintended, crisis of identity. This English translation (less than perfect English it must be noted, despite the gushing cover notes, by Judith Landry) is originally written in the author’s native language: Marani being (according to the book’s notes) an Italian, working in Belgium, writing a weekly column for a Swiss newspaper in a Euro-language of his own devising; the main protagonists of New Finnish Grammar are, variously, a German-Finnish neurologist, an Italian-cum-purportedly Finnish amnesiac, and a half-Swedish pastor with a stubborn disdain for all things Russian. Marani’s Europhilic tendencies are clear enough, but the identity crisis in New Finnish Grammar lies not so much in this or via his own personal biography; rather, it lies in trying to ascertain what this book is trying to be.

We know this is not a book about grammar: that much is clear to us from the outset because we know that we have chosen a novel, of sorts. We come into the reading perfectly well informed in this instance. However, what did soon become clear during the reading, for this reader, was that Marani appears to want to be jamming into a narrative his apparent knowledge of the nuances of the Finnish language and mythology in some very clumsy ways. It is as if the story of (who we assume to be) Sampo Karjalainen, a man left for dead on the quayside in Trieste, Italy, in 1943, is secondary to the author’s need to batter the reader senseless with a somewhat academic treatise on language and myth. New Finnish Grammar is about identity, but it lumbers between academia and the novel/writerly in its telling.

That Marani uses the neurologist, Petri Friari, as a first person device (occasionally interposing supposed notes on Karjalainen’s found journal/manuscript into the fictive stream) is a testament to the clumsiness of execution in certain places in this book. At times there’s a self-conscious air to those interjections by Friari: it’s almost as if Marani has inserted them as an after-thought, as a means of sewing up bits he had neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he went.

For example, writing as Friari, Marani inserts into Karjalainen’s found manuscript some notes about the long private oratories on Finnish mythology, as given by Pastor Olof Koskela to the attentive Karjalainen (who, it must be remembered, is learning the complicated Finnish language from scratch following a clout on the head and a loss of all memory). Marani, writing as Friari, notes:

As to Koskela’s dense reflections on language, here and elsewhere, I have been able to reconstruct them thanks to the substantial notes written on the back of the illustrations in his copy of the Kalevala [of epic Finnish myth-poetry], which I came across together with this manuscript. In an envelope glued into the jacket flap, along with sacred images and old Russian stamps, I also found various theological writings, indeed virtual dissertations, by the pastor which I incorporated into the manuscript where I felt the author’s notes seemed to be referring to them.

Never mind that the fiendishly difficult language that is Finnish is being learned from scratch, and that this in itself must take some Herculean effort of sustained concentration if Marani’s description of Finnish grammar complexities is to be believed: the after-thought of Karjalainen’s learning difficulties here has been conveniently cleaned up by the sudden materialisation of Koskela’s found writings inserted into proceedings and then swept away again. The reader is distracted throughout the book by the nagging concern of just how does one learn Finnish from scratch and also manage to understand all the complexities of mythological oratory, as presented by the ever-extending tale-telling of Olof Koskela? That Karjalainen is thorough in his study skills after the event, as part explanation (the other being Friari’s inserts), just doesn’t wash enough to allow the fictive suspension to be maintained.

This then brings me to consideration of ‘voice’ in the targeted suspension of the reader within the world of Helsinki, 1944 (being where the majority of this book is set). If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters. Marani, here, speaks as Friari, Koskela, Karjalainen, and as Ilma Koivisto (the erstwhile love interest of the latter); however, actually, Marani speaks as Marani throughout. It is, perhaps, indicative of Marani the linguist, the journalist, the academic at large within the pages of this book, rather than Marani the novelist, that Friari, Koskela, Karjalainen and Ilma Koivisto fail to lift themselves adequately from those pages.

It may only have been for bloody-minded self-satisfaction that I laboured on past Koskela’s late and turgid Kalevala-tales of characters such as Kullervo, Kalervo, Untamo, and so forth: I lost interest in the point, if there was one, of these tellings — bloody-mindedness carried me along to the inevitable denouement and the finding out of who Karjalainen actually was. This ending was clumsy and unsatisfactory. It felt like Marani had got to a point where Friari’s final notes (which make up those last few pages) needed some Friari-like inserts themselves to explain away the plot holes.

This all said, it would be unrepresentative of the whole if this review were not to also include some positives (after all, New Finnish Grammar is not a book I failed to finish). There are places where Marani flourishes his linguistic imagery and comes up sweetly: he describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words, which work in the English version let alone the original Italian. For example:

The red light falling in through the window was now becoming slowly tinged with grey. The sun was sinking behind the forests and a dense layer of salt-laden cloud was settling over the sleeping city.

That these presumably Finnish words, presented by the language student Karjalainen, are just too succinct can be momentarily forgotten (though not entirely). When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.

Taken at face value, some of Friari’s inserted text also has some aesthetic worth and depth (Friari being, at least, Finnish by birth and so a native speaker):

I prefer to believe that the universe is driven not by some all-powerful will, but by the random play of chemistry. The thousand substances of which it is composed clash and mingle each time they meet . . . [their reactions] as mighty as the splitting of the atom or as sublime as the flowering of a cherry tree. When everything has finally mixed and merged, when oxireduction is complete, when matter is made of nuclei as small as grains of sand but as heavy as this planet, and each electron is set upon its fatal course, then there will be peace in the universe.

Sadly though, these moments of Marani’s writing are rare. The majority of this reader’s thought is taken up not by beautiful arrangements of words but by matters of character, composition, and clumsiness. Judith Landry’s translation is described as ‘seamless’: one can only then assume that it’s the fault of the author at points where Landry confuses the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, or maybe the original Italian has grammatical structures that don’t translate easily. The publishers, Dedalus, also ought really to be checking their offerings more carefully for spelling and typesetting errors.

By way of drawing towards conclusion, I first offer up one of Marani’s descriptions of the spoken Finnish language:

In European languages the sentence is a straight line; in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.

This may well be true in the spoken world: that there may be beauty in the spoken Finnish may be undeniable; yet, an excerpt of a transcribed song in the book goes along the lines of:

Kauniina vaikkyy muisto urhojemme,
Kuolossa mekin vasta kalpenemme.
Eespain rohkeasti vaan,
Ei kunniaansa myo
Sun poikas milloinkaan!

The written language of Finnish is ugly. There may be something here, as spoken, or indeed there may be a circle here. Who’s to know? It is the same with Marani’s New Finnish Grammar: what is it, its identity, within the circle it attempts to describe? Something may be happening. Sadly, I fail to appreciate or care enough.

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