Ivan, is the last of the Vostyachs, the last member of a tribe that connects the language of certain tribes of the North Americas and Finnish, they were also very powerful shamans, with the ability to be understood by most animals. Although he hasn’t spoken a word in years, not since as a child he saw his father shot dead at the slave labour camp they were prisoners at. Shoot forward twenty years and Ivan wanders out of the camp after the guards all left when their wages stopped arriving. He leaves the camp moving out into the woods, then as if led by some occult power, he returns to his place of origin and starts to live as his forebears did, through this mystifying power he also rediscovers his language & the ability to be understood by the wildlife. Winter hits the region and the weather turns harsh forcing him to visit a local village to trade for food.
It is here that Ivan is discovered by Olga, a linguist, stuck in the village because of the weather, her curiosity is roused by this man who speaks this strange language, which she soon realises is an ancient tongue, and possibly one that joins Finland to pre-Columbian North America. She confides this information via a letter to Professor Jaarmo Aurtova, an expert on Finno-Ugric. This turns out to be a bad decision (Understatement Alert!!) as he plans a speech at the 21st Congress of Finno-Ugric, and in that speech he aims to pronounce Finnish as Europe's oldest & purest language, meaning Olga’s news will blow his speech out of the water.
Not knowing this, Olga sends Ivan to Helsinki, and arranges for Jaarmo to meet him. From this point the writer of the book chucks in a couple of murders, a zoo emptied of it’s wildlife, an angry ex-wife trailing around the city & an Estonian folk group, all linked in some way by the professor, as he tries to bury all knowledge of the existence of Ivan & more importantly his language. To find out how the author combines all of this you will have to read this very clever and very funny book. Diego Marani’s book New Finnish Grammar, made the Official Shortlist for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with the judges stating that..
“This subtle and moving novel shows how much of what we take to be ourselves depends upon the language that we speak and the identity it gives us. It also shows how suddenly that self can be taken away.”
In the Last Of The Vostyachs, the author’s obsessions are still the same, language, it’s purpose not merely as an instrument for communication, but also how it 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. Although this time he has used them to create a fantastic clever, funny mystery/thriller complete with a wonderful villain, that you’ll love to hate and whose exploits you’ll be amazed and shocked by, all whilst laughing at him, especially in the end scenes………. but I’ll let you discover the delights of that moment.
This book as with New Finnish Grammar, was translated by Judith Landry, and as with that book, she has my heartfelt thanks for allowing me the opportunity to read this with the ease I did. It has also made the longlist for this years Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, it will be interesting to see if Diego Marani and Judith Landry make the shortlist for the second year running.
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 also been published by Dedalus. In Italian he has published six novels including this .
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.