June 17, 2011 10:02 pm

New Finnish Grammar

 

New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry, Dedalus, RRP£9.99, 188 pages

Diego Marani is a senior linguist for the European Union in Brussels and the inventor of Europanto, a jokey lingua franca. No surprise then to find that his most celebrated novel, published in Italian in 2000, should be so much concerned with language.

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IN Fiction

Echoing The Return of Martin Guerre and The English Patient, Marani’s story turns on a soldier’s disputed identity. In 1943, a man wakes from a coma on a German hospital ship in Trieste. Only the name inside his coat – Sampo Karjalainan – offers any clue to who he might be. From this slender evidence, his doctor assumes he is a fellow Finn and begins to teach him the language of his “homeland”.

In some hands this would be the set-up for a mystery; here it becomes the basis for a subtle exploration of how language shapes our sense of ourselves and the world, as “Sampo” tries to find his tongue in war-stricken Helsinki. A fascinating if sometimes implausible act of cultural ventriloquism.

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