Friday, May 11, 2012

book review: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry.

The backstory: Diego Marani's debut novel, New Finnish Grammar, was originally published in Italian in 2000. The translated edition is on the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist.

The basics: (from the publisher) "One night at Trieste in September 1943 a seriously wounded soldier is found on the quay. The doctor, of a newly arrived German hospital ship, Pietri Friari gives the unconscious soldier medical assistance. His new patient has no documents or anything that can identifying him. When he regains consciousness he has lost his memory and cannot even remember what language he speaks. From a few things found on the man the doctor, who is originally from Finland, believes him to be a sailor and a fellow countryman, who somehow or other has ended up in Trieste. The doctor dedicates himself to teaching the man Finnish, beginning the reconstruction of the identity of Sampo Karjalainen, leading the missing man to return to Finland in search of his identity and his past."

My thoughts: As this novel began, I found myself comparing it to Dalton Trumbo's masterpiece Johnny Got His Gun, which is a huge complement, particularly from this reader. While I can't be certain Marani was influenced by Trumbo and Johnny, this novel soon became march larger a man in a hospital trying to figure out his identity and remember language. I know next to nothing about the Finnish language, but I was fascinated both by the language and the thought of learning any language again from scratch.

While language is a large part of this narrative, it's truly a story of identity and clues to remembrance. It often read like a mystery: who is this man? How did he end up in Trieste? What will his future hold? As fascinated as I was with discovering these answers, I was even more intrigued by the journey Marani takes us on. As a reader, I had to face the fact I may not discover the answers to these questions, a harsh reality that is far gentler to me than to this man.

Favorite passage: "Sometimes human thought gets lost in the warren of its own logic, becomes a slave to a geometry which is and in itself, whose aim is no longer the understanding of reality, but the bolstering of some prior assumption. We are such monstrous egoists that we would rather destroy ourselves pursuing false truths than admit that we are on the wrong track."

The verdict: New Finnish Grammar is a fascinating story of language, memory, the things that construct our human identity, and the things that unite and separate our nations. The writing is hauntingly beautiful, the story was serious and mysterious, and it's a novel whose messages will linger.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 186 pages
Publication date: September 1, 2011
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy New Finnish Grammar from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version, sadly.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for introducing me to this title. It sounds like a very moving read. What a task to have to learn language again. Lovely review.

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    1. Lindsay, it's one I would not have known about if not for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I'm so glad I decided to read the shortlist. The very idea of teaching language to someone who has no knowledge of it is baffling and fascinating. It's a great read.

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  2. Like Lindsay, thanks for the introduction! I find that I've been reading more titles with Scandinavian influence, or I guess should say titles that feature Scandinavian culture, and it's really a nice change. I don't remember really learning about that part of the world when younger so it's nice to get it in literature and then move to other resources from there. Glad you enjoyed this one. It sounds like a fulfilling title.

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    1. It obviously had a strong Scandinavian influence, but the novel was originally written in Italian, and it had glimpses of that, as well as World War II. All in all, it was a fascinating World War II international novel.

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  3. This sounds fascinating. I'm kind of a language geek, so I think I've just found myself a new addition to my reading list! Thanks for the introduction.

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    1. I'm glad to help others discover this wonderful novel, Bettina! If you're a language geek, then you should definitely make time for it.

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  4. This was a fascinating review of what sounds like a very intriguing and exceptional book. I had never heard of it before, but your review is so detailed and enthusiastic that I think I need to see if I can find this one on audio. I know nothing about the Finnish language, but there is so much that interests me about this book after having read your thoughts. Thanks you for a wonderfully comprehensive and fantastic review.

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    1. Thanks, Zibilee! I never would have discovered it if not for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I'm so glad I did. It was a fascinating read.

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  5. You're reading so many good books lately! I think I would love this one too, if only for the language aspects. I did psychology at uni and look a module on linguistics and since then I have been hooked to the point of reading lots of dry non-fiction about the formation of language. This one has language stuff and a good story, I'm sold!

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    1. Sam--I can't wait to hear your thought as a linguist. It was such a fascinating read!

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  6. This sounds like a great novel -- reminds me a bit of Martin Guerre and The English Patient (in some ways) -- I'm totally going to get this one.

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    1. I need to give The English Patient another try. I read it in high school and hated it, but I think I would like it better now!

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  7. "We are such monstrous egoists that we would rather destroy ourselves pursuing false truths than admit that we are on the wrong track." - Oh, that is so painfully true!

    If the entire book is written like that passage, I just may have to add this one to the TBR pile!

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    1. Emily--the writing was gorgeous. I think both the author and the translator are amazing!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!