Translated by Judith Landry
Memory is an individuals ability to evoke or revive specific events from their lives. Memory is thought to divide into 3 main subdivisions, these being Working memory (prefrontal Cortex), Long term memory (hippocampus) and Skill memory (Cerebellum). These all play their part in contributing to our identity, by the building of new memories and the retaining of past ones, also by providing us with scenarios that allows us to know how to behave socially. Making memory an important factor in building an individuals identity.
In Diego Marani’s book New Finnish Grammar, a man is found on a Trieste quay, unconscious with obvious head wounds. When he regains consciousness he appears to have no memory, or language, to all intents and purposes he has become an empty vessel devoid of all that we would perceive necessary for an individuals identity, in fact the only thing that marks him in any way is a name-tag inside the seaman’s jacket he’s wearing, with the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen and a handkerchief embroidered S.K.
He is taken to a hospital ship that is anchored nearby & administered to by a doctor who’s origins are Finnish and it is he who recognises the name as that of a native of his homeland. The doctor (Petri Friari) has a troubled past with his native land due to the way his parents, particularly the way his father, was hounded by his fellow countrymen, then put to death as a communist traitor. All of this feeds into the way the doctor proceeds to help the man now known as Sampo, whom he sees as a version of himself & he takes on the task of restoring Sampo to the man he believes he is, by reacquainting him with what he perceives is his native tongue and then by repatriating him to Finland, with a letter introducing him to a fellow doctor.
Despite being in what he thinks could be his homeland, he remains rootless, almost a ghost figure haunting the society he happens to be with, incapable of forming a relationship with either himself or others, still trying to master a language which could provide the key to unlock the identity he feels is trapped within.
New Finnish Grammar demonstrates that not only is memory an important building block to identity but so is language, that it’s purpose is not merely as an instrument for communication, but also relates to the behavioural codes and cultural values that go to construct ones identity and that not only does language define the characteristics of a specific group or community, it is also the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others.
All of this is played out against the backdrop of the last remaining years of the second world war, with Finland caught between Russia and Germany and is told via a manuscript Friari finds in 1946 which is
"written in a spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs, exercises in Finnish grammar & bits cut out of the Helsinki telephone directory”.
This Friari interrupts with his own commentary adding explanations, adding his own reasoning/opinion on a particular event or remark. By using this technique Marani manages to create a tale of two men both at odds with their image of themselves, with their identity as individuals. He also asks questions such as to what extent learning/ re-learning a language affects who you are, like some blank canvas can you become a totally different individual or would you find yourself lost, torn from the roots of all that you were and what it is that binds all that a person is & within that binding are we all empty vessels, foundering in search of the something, someone that could save us.
This is a beautifully written book, that needs time to be absorbed & Judith Landry’s translation of it, allowed me the opportunity to do that, to which she earns my heartfelt thanks.
Diego Marani born in Ferrara (Italy) in 1959 is married with two children and works as a senior linguist for the European Union in Brussels. In 1996, while working as a translator for the Council of the European Union, he invented Europanto, a mock international auxiliary language. Every week he writes a column for a Swiss newspaper in Europanto. He also published a collection of short stories in Europanto, Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot has been published by Dedalus. In Italian he has published six novels including this and The Last of the Vostyachs.
Judith Landry was educated at Somerville College, Oxford where she obtained a first class honours degree in French and Italian. She combines a career as a translator of works of fiction, art and architecture with part-time teaching. Her translations for Dedalus are: The House by the Medlar Tree by Giovanni Verga, New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte, Prague Noir: The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague by Sylvie Germain and Smarra & Trilby by Charles Nodier.