Friday, November 10, 2023

Reading group: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Doug's suggestion, this novel by acclaimed linguist and novelist Diego Marani was received as a 'masterpiece' in his native Italy, and in its English translation (by Judith Landry), published by the small UK press Dedalus, it has provoked high praise as a brilliant - even 'genius' - study of the way that language and memory shape us and give us our sense of our place in the world.

The premise of the novel, indicated in the book's back-cover blurb, is that a man, found unconscious with a head injury on Trieste harbour in 1943, wakes from his coma having lost all memory and language and any sense whatever of his own identity.

However, the novel does not begin with this intriguing scenario, but with a Prologue written some years later in the words of Petri Friari, a Finnish doctor working in Hamburg's city hospital. This Prologue conveys a number of facts that float in mystery, presented in the following order. First, Friari states that in 1946 - ie at the end of the Second World War - he found a manuscript in a trunk in the military hospital in Helsinki, 'together with a sailor's jacket, a handkerchief with the letters S.K. embroidered on it, three letters, a volume of the Kalevala [the national epic of Finland] and an empty bottle of koskenkorva [a Finnish vodka]'. The manuscript, he tells us, is written in a 'spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs and exercises in Finnish grammar', and including headlines and cuttings from newspapers. He knows the facts behind this manuscript, Friari then tells us, and the story it is unsuccessfully trying to tell. He has therefore, he tells us, reconstructed its story in a 'more orthodox' form, filling in the gaps it leaves with interjections of his own. He now reveals that having fled Finland as a young man, he had returned to look for the author of this manuscript, but found only the objects enumerated above. His motive for reconstructing the manuscript, he says, is to honour and memorialise a man who, through 'a cruel misunderstanding' on Friari's part, had been 'unintentionally driven towards a fate that was not his own'. Friari hopes also to 'reconstruct my own story, my own identity, through other eyes'. However, the Prologue ends on a pessimistic note: having once briefly felt he could be reconciled with his own country, Friari now feels exiled once more by the (unidentified) tragic events of which he indicates he, Friari, was the agent, and he concludes: 'perhaps Massimiliano Brodar is merely an instrument of my damnation.' 

What follows is the story of the author of the manuscript in the author's 'own' words ventriloquised by Friari, occasionally interrupted, as has been promised, by interjections of Friari's own. It begins as the author emerges from a coma to the indistinct sight of Dr Friari watching him. It is 1943. He is on a German hospital ship in Trieste harbour where he has been taken by some of its sailors after they found him on Trieste harbour. In the collar of the jacket he was wearing is a label bearing the Finnish name, Sampo Karjalainen, and in its pocket a handkerchief with the initials S K. Friari, exiled from Finland in his youth after his father was taken political prisoner and put to death, yet harbouring a lifelong longing for its culture and language, thus takes a special interest in the patient, caring for him constantly. As he very slowly recovers, Friari sets passionately about the task of re-teaching him Finnish, clearly relishing that re-involvement with his own native tongue. However, Sampo, as he must know himself - although the name has no familiarity for him - fails to recover his memory or any sense of his identity. Finally, Friari manages to secure a place for him on a journey to a military hospital in Helsinki, in the hope that once back in his own country, Sampo will begin to remember things and know who he is. Yet in Helsinki Sampo struggles. He works hard at the language, as the school exercise book will show, but the language fails to nourish him, he fails to feel he belongs in it, that it is part of him. The army pastor takes him under his wing, and Sampo attempts to absorb the Finnish lore with which the pastor is obsessed, and with which he constantly regales him. But the pastor's obsession sinks into a kind solipsistic madness and he leaves for the front and is very soon killed; Sampo is thus abandoned and goes on feeling anchorless. A young female military nurse becomes attached to him, but he is unable properly to relate to her - he has no concrete identity with which to relate - and he cannot even see the point of answering the three letters she sends when she is posted to the front.  

One day he is sitting on the harbour and a German-made warship heaves into view. On its side is written the name it received after it was fairly recently requisitioned into the Finnish navy: Sampo Karjalainen. It is suddenly clear: the name he has come to think is his own, the name attached to the jacket in which he was found, is simply that of a ship (with which, he will assume, he was once associated, though he has no memory of it). The minimal identity he has managed to develop crumbles away. In despair, and because he must indeed be Finnish, he decides to join up and fight for Finland.

At this point, Friari tells us, 'Sampo''s manuscript ends. Friari now tells us that a War Office file carries the information that private Sampo Karjalainen 'fell in the battle of Ihantala'. He now knows who 'Sampo' really was, he tells us, and that the reason for his journey to Helsinki, made as soon as the war ended, was to tell him, though of course it was too late. In an Epilogue, Friari explains. The man found unconscious on the dock at Trieste was the victim of a German secret agent, Stefan Klein, a man with therefore the same initials and who had been serving on the ship Sampo Karjalainen. Klein had clearly attacked him in order to lay hands on an Italian uniform and equip himself to infiltrate enemy forces. 'Sampo' had in fact been Italian, not Finnish, born indeed in Trieste itself and serving in the Italian army. His real name, printed in the leave permit found in the lining of the jacket Klein was wearing when he was shot dead by the partisans, was Massimiliano Brodar. The novel ends on a note of remorse and deep sadness as Friari reflects on his mistake and 'arrogant' assumption, made through his 'blind attachment to his country', and his sense that now he can never after all atone for what happened to his father.

All of us in our reading group were fascinated by the theme of language and identity, and the insights about this provided by this linguist author. Without language, the mind of the recently injured 'Sampo' is 'a ship whose moorings had been shattered by a storm. I could see the landing stage bobbing not far off... A subtle veil, like a form of hypnosis, was shielding me from the colours of reality.' Imagining that the language he is teaching him is his native tongue, Friari puts his finger on the way our native language locates us in time, in our past and thus our identity: 'Think of each word as though it were a magic charm which might open the door to memory'. Mistakenly tutored (as we will finally understand) in the wrong language, in Helsinki 'Sampo' has the 'distinct impression that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my consciousness I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive'. 

We did all however find the book something of a difficult read, and it seemed to all of us a lot longer than it is in terms of pages. John said to agreement that the book is written in a formal, almost old-fashioned style, which makes for ponderousness, with much telling rather than showing - although there are some lyrical descriptions - and others noted that it was repetitive. Everyone found the long disquisitions by the army pastor on the epic Kalevala somewhat wearing, and couldn't see the point of their portrayal in such detail and at such length. A main comment was that although there were ostensibly two characters narrating, there was no variation in the voices. This was of course excused by the fact that Friari is taking it upon himself to reconstruct and re-tell 'Sampo's' story for him, but this does make for a monotony of tone, and Friari's is something of a formal voice. (In fact, as I think Clare pointed out, Friari is imposing his own voice on 'Sampo', and thus committing an act of colonisation.) The only real indication of a change of narrator when it occurs is a shift to italics in the typography whenever Friari makes an intervention (and since these italicised sections sometimes last for several pages, they are less physically easy to read).

There were aspects of the structure that left me unsatisfied, which is why I have laid out the events above in the sequence in which they occur in the novel. In fact, the 'plot' is to some extent given away at the beginning: we know right from the start that the author of the manuscript is probably dead; we know that Friari feels responsible through having made some fatal mistake, and we are even twice within the Prologue given the author's name, Massimiliano Brodar - indeed it is given the prominence of being the final two words of the Prologue. However, that short Prologue sets up so many mysteries, and provides so many facts in such a short space and at a point when readers are still trying to orientate themselves in the situation, that the connection of that name with the writer of the manuscript slipped me and others by, or at least quickly fell away from our consciousness. And indeed the discovery by Friari of the real name seems to be presented in the novel as something of a 'reveal'. (Whether a consciousness of the fact that 'Sampo' is really Italian would have added to or detracted from the tension of the events I find hard in retrospect to judge.) There is another structural confusion: in the Prologue Friari refers to the document that will follow - his recreation of 'Sampo''s story - as having been written in the past: 'It was many years before I could bring myself to offer these pages to the public', he says, and tells how he was helped in his reconstruction by the nurse who became involved with 'Sampo' . Yet in Friari's final intervention, which reads as a continuation of the same running commentary, he is still in Helsinki, having only just found the trunk with its contents and discovered that he is too late to find 'Sampo'. I also found it hard to grasp Friari's need to 'atone' with regard to his country (at one point he talks of his father having been unjustly murdered, yet at another of needing to atone for his father's 'crime'), or of his sense that, having failed 'Sampo', he has forfeited the right or ability to atone: I felt a lack of resolution for this on a psychological, or maybe a cultural, level. 

We all agreed that it was a very sad book, and although we had not found it an easy read, Ann said to the agreement of others that she was glad she had read it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here