Maria Takolander on Diego Marani

Loneliness, by definition an intimate condition, strikes me as being intimately associated with literature. Perhaps this has something to do with the solitary act of reading: a reader communing with a book is undergoing a profoundly individual and private experience.

Or perhaps it’s because of the literary representations of loneliness that have been seared into my consciousness. There’s the obscene figure of Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, enduring his alienation alone in his room, or the orphan Jane in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, always yearning to belong. However, isn’t it true that we also use literature to provide us with a salve for our loneliness, or a reprieve from our loneliness? We look for someone – a character, an author –who is like us, someone who will provide us with a sense of recognition or understanding.

It was in such a spirit that I peered into Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar, a contemporary portrait of loneliness to which I have been powerfully drawn.

Marani’s novel concerns a character, beaten almost to death, discovered in the quay of Trieste during World War II. Suffering from severe amnesia and aphasia, he has entirely forgotten his identity and his language. The man’s Finnish doctor recognises the name sewn inside the man’s sailor’s jacket – Sampo Karjalainen – as a distinctively Finnish one and sends the man to Helsinki to rediscover himself among his people. What follows is an extraordinary depiction of a man’s loneliness, as he attempts to learn the notoriously difficult Finnish language and to fit into a society traumatised by the ongoing losses of wars.

Finnish words are like ‘padlocks’; the laughter of a woman is ‘a match struck in the dark room of my memory’. However, Sampo Karjalainen cannot break into the Finnish language, and any flashes of memory fail to ignite. He is tyrannised by his solitude. This is ultimately a story about a failed quest to belong.

As the child of Finnish migrants to Australia, I felt a peculiar resonance with the lonely and anonymous state of Sampo Karjalainen. In the ‘no-man’s land’ of the character’s life, as it is described in Marani’s novel, I recognised the no-man’s land of my experience. Like Karjalainen, I had been cast adrift in a new world – although in my case it was Australia rather than Finland. Like Karjalainen, I had been compelled to learn a new language and fit into a new culture. My nostalgic parents had bestowed on me a sense of having lost a homeland that was integral to my identity. Like Karjalainen, I too had been inspired to recapture a lost source of identity bound up with Finland.

finland Wooden houses in Kuusiluoto, Oulu, Finland.

In interviews Marani has suggested that he wanted to draw attention to the constructed nature of national identities –something he argues is particularly apparent in Finland, which declared its independence in 1917. Marani is suspicious of nationalism for good reason: his novel, set in the World War II, shows how we live and die by our ‘invented’ differences. Nevertheless, Marani’s glorious descriptions of the Finnish language, character and myths aroused in me the acute patriotism felt by the outcast and those anxious to belong.

The expatriate Finnish doctor who saved Karjalainen, for instance, describes the Finnish language of his childhood as ‘the object of some long-lost love’ and himself as being ‘in thrall to those chipped sounds, those words eaten away by ice and silence’. Those distinctive sounds of Finnish, a language I spoke until the age of five and then lost, are ones to which I also remain in thrall. It was the language of my childhood home, the language I heard at Lutheran services in a homely church that smelled of fresh coffee and pulla (a Finnish sweet bread). There were no harsh sounds, but there were hard lessons.

We see such hard lessons in Marani’s novel when a nurse, who offers a brief promise of companionship to the lonely Karjalainen, writes him a letter: ‘even when we believe that we are the bearers of immense suffering, in reality we are like ants carrying crumbs.’ Such was the ethos passed on to me by my Finnish mother, whose family suffered under Stalin’s purges in Karelia, before they were exiled from their homes during the so-called Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union.

There is also the rousing speech about Finnish identity delivered by a Lutheran pastor, obsessed with the ancient Finnish saga known as The Kalevala:

‘Finland is what remains of something else: take away the Slavs, the Scandinavians, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the sea salt, the birch forests, scrape off a few hundred thousand tons of granite and what you are left with is Finland. If you were once Finnish, at some point or other you will find all this with you, because all this is stored in your memory, it cannot be mislaid. It is in your blood, your guts.’

It is a speech that exemplifies the Finnish quality of sisu – stoicism and strength – attributed with enabling Finland to resist the Soviet Union during World War II, despite being vastly outnumbered. Indeed, the Finns painted the word sisu on their tanks. As Marani suggests in both New Finnish Grammar and the equally wonderful The Last of the Vostyachs, the second book of a trilogy focused on Finnish nationalism, words are near-magical or shamanic instruments.

If the magic of New Finnish Grammar aroused my nostalgia for a lost state of belonging, it also prompted me to consider the progressive aspects of an unaffiliated status. I am, after all, free to invent myself – advice that the desperate Sampo Karjalainen fails to accept. In interviews, Marani, who lives outside or between cultures in his professional role as a translator, refers to the ‘loneliness of the cosmopolitan’, but he also embraces the opportunity that this status affords him of belonging to ‘something bigger’. I think this too is where literature comes in.


Maria Takolander’s collection of short stories, The Double, is published by Text this month. She is also the author of two books of poems, Ghostly Subjects and the forthcoming The End of the World; and a book of literary criticism, Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground. She is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University in Geelong.

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New Finnish Grammar

New Finnish Grammar

Diego Marani, Judith Landry

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