In something of a bold gesture, Diego Marani begins New Finnish Grammar with the kind of disclosure some authors would be tempted to withhold for a final act: the narrator is not the possessor of the story he relays but merely a bit-player, moved by remorse to piece together the story of another man’s fate.
In 1943, a wounded soldier is taken aboard a German warship stationed off the Italian port of Trieste. The man – known only by the tag on his jacket, Sampo Karjalainen – has no memory of his identity or language. Presuming him to be a fellow countryman, the ship’s neurologist teaches his patient Finnish in an attempt to trigger his memory. It is this doctor who holds the novel’s reins, peppering the story with observations about Sampo’s mental health and his increasing dependency on marginal grammatical concerns as the platform for his well-being.
A friendly pastor aids Sampo’s spiritual recovery with retellings of Finnish mythology. These passages reinforce the novel’s theme that identity is largely shaped by heritage, but they also threaten to derail its pacing with their blunt intrusions. Despite this, these tales provide texture to an otherwise simple story; one that only gently piques with the introduction of a romantic interest for Sampo.
The protagonist’s stilted infatuation with a hospital nurse is but one of two that frame the novel; the other being a tryst of the author’s own. Not since JRR Tolkien has a writer so openly displayed such a love affair with linguistics (a comparison only bolstered by the fact that, like Tolkien before him, Marani has invented his own language).
Given its inert title and shallow narrative arc, it is difficult to imagine New Finnish
Grammar having an emotional heart; but it does manage to stir, despite its otherwise academic premise.
NEW FINNISH GRAMMAR, by Diego Marani (Text, $26).
Todd Atticus is a Wellington bookseller.