As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry
Why This Book Should Win: Because Marani invented Europanto, a “mock international auxiliary language.”
Today’s post is written by the amazing Daniel Hahn, who is both a writer and translator AND a program director at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Once upon a time, we spent a week together at a palace in Salzburg, Austria.
It’s September 1943. A man is found close to death on the quayside at Trieste. He’s wearing a sailor’s jacket, tagged with the name Sampo Karjalainen. He is brought on-board a German hospital ship, the Tubingen, and revived by a kindly doctor. Dr Friari is a Finn, and recognises Sampo Karjalainen as a Finnish name; the man he is treating must, he assumes, be a compatriot. But when Sampo wakes up, he remembers nothing of who he is, and not a word of any language. Dr Friari arranges for him to be sent to Helsinki, where immersion in his land and his language might raise some spark that will help him recover whoever he used to be.
Marani’s book paints a picture of one man’s struggle against the isolation that comes from having no past, and having no language. Though he is made quite welcome by the people he meets, the Helsinki that Sampo comes to inhabit is a city in the midst of a war, under increasing attack from the Soviets. He has a few acquaintances but only one real friend, Olof Koskela, a radical, charismatic pastor who helps him learn the language and shares with him great tales from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, among them the tale of the creation of the magical artefact called the “Sampo.” But the book’s only warmth comes from Irma, a nurse. She takes him to her “memory tree,” a tree where she takes everyone who’s important to her, so that the place might be infused with happy memories that she can call upon whenever she needs them. Irma believes her friendship can help him; he, meanwhile, is repelled by the very idea of intimacy, and when she is posted away to Viipuri (Vyborg) he receives and studies her letters but never manages a reply.
The heart of Sampo’s experience, and everything that’s distinctive about the book, is found in his attempts to master his (new) native language—or, at least, to develop his own version of it. It’s a language with four infinitive forms, with fifteen cases (including the abessive, a case denoting absence), a language, says the Pastor, “which should only be sung”; which Sampo uses in his own way, with no sense of register, mixing Biblical language with vocabulary he has picked up in the bar. That thread of intense language acquisition, more than anything, is the unlikely genius of this book, and in particular Judith Landry’s translation; in the carefully tidied-up voice of a language-less first-person, it weaves syntactical reflections through one man’s most basic experience of trying to create an identity. The language is his only possibility of establishing connections to the outside world, seen always through a veil of half-understanding, bits of information to be picked at, turned around, examined exhaustingly until they make sense.
From his lessons with Pastor Koskela, his letters from Irma, his exposure to the world around him as he wanders the Helsinki streets in the uneasy daylight of a northern summer night-time, Sampo does in time construct a Finnish that allows him to communicate. Yes, mastery of language is at the root of power, that’s clear, and yet it is not enough, without an identity, without roots, without the certainty even of his own name. There is nothing easy and nothing obvious about New Finnish Grammar, a translated book about language, a story narrated by a man without an identity or a voice—a tremendously difficult thing to achieve, and here pulled off admirably.
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