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