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.

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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