Review | Friday 26 October 2012
Anyone who’s tried to learn a second language, or spent time in a foreign country, will understand the sheer frustration of trying to make yourself understood – the grasping for basic words and phrases so easily taken for granted in your mother tongue.
It is this frustration that is at the centre of Diego Marani’s latest novel, New Finnish Grammar.
Set against the backdrop of World War II, the novel follows the trials of a wounded soldier rescued by a German ship in Italy. Having no recollection of his past or even his language, the man is presumed to be Finnish due to an embroidered name on his jacket. He is then taken to Helsinki, where he must navigate the war-torn landscape in search of his true identity – a task complicated by the fact he cannot understand a single word anyone is saying to him.
Unlike other European languages, in which ‘the sentence is a straight line’, the words in Finnish, the narrator tells us, are ‘grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest to the verb becomes the subject’. New Finnish Grammar is similarly recursive and disorientating for readers accustomed to linear narratives. This is not to say the reading experience is a chore – with some patience the reader slowly adapts to Marani’s unique storytelling style, which in turn makes the main character’s struggle all the more poignant.
Marani is a noted linguist, and his novel will be appreciated best by those with a keen interest in the philosophy of speech. It will also appeal to general lovers of language, who, by the story’s end, will better understand Finnish, which can be heard ‘in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow’.
Emily Laidlaw is a freelance book reviewer