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New Finnish Grammar

Author: Diego Marani

Translator: Judith Landry   Cover design: Marie Lane  

It was, naturally, the flatness of the title that attracted me: it bespoke, in its quiet confidence, a deep, rich and eventful inner life. And besides, I have some inkling of what Finnish grammar is like: fiendishly complex, basically, and related to no other languages on earth save Hungarian and Estonian (I simplify). Learning Finnish involves not only beginning to appreciate the most beautiful of languages, but grasping, among many, many other things, 15 cases for nouns, such as the inessive, the elative, the ilative, and, everyone's favourite, the abessive. I will return to the abessive in a minute. Deep and rich, did I say? That isn't the half of it. I can't remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word "genius" of its author.

The story is simple, as the best stories are. A man is found on a quayside in Trieste during the second world war, having been clubbed almost to death. A tag inside the seaman's jacket he is wearing bears a Finnish name: Sampo Karjalainen. When he regains consciousness he has no memory, no language. He is simply a consciousness devoid of context. The doctor on the hospital ship riding at anchor, though, is Finnish, and, with nothing else to go on, starts teaching his gradually recovering patient Finnish, in the hope that memories will be triggered, and he can rediscover who he is. Eventually, when Karjalainen is well enough, he is sent to Helsinki, where perhaps he can find more fragments of his identity.

Now, the concept of learning languages is something close to Diego Marani's heart: as well as working as a senior linguist for the EU, he has invented Europanto, a language without rules which can incorporate words from as many European languages as you like in order to help yourself be understood. (You can speak it. "Je suis going für ein walk" is, I gather, perfectly acceptable Europanto.)

So there is this linguistic joke running beneath the novel; but there is far, far more than that going on as well. If the set-up reminds one of that of Ondaatje's The English Patient, I would venture to say that this novel is far more profound and far less stylistically irritating and inflated with self-esteem. This is a novel which wants to say what it has to say at its own pace, but without overstaying its welcome (it's only 187 pages long, but the pages are worth lingering over).

First, there is the business of learning a language and a culture from scratch. For the Finns, the two are tightly intertwined, yet full of strangeness. "For us, language is the word of God, even when you don't believe in Him," says one character at one point. The shamanistic pastor who befriends Karjalainen tries to explain what his first name means: "Sampo is a sacred word for the Finns; the whole of the Kalevala revolves around it. No one can say exactly what it was, no one has seen it, because it has been destroyed. It might have been the pillar which held up the earth, and whose collapse for ever cut us off from the place we came from."

There is more than one reason, one comes to realise, why Marani – an Italian – chose Finnish as the lost language of his hero. This is a novel about loss, about not having: asked by a nurse what he likes most about the language, Karjalainen replies: "the abessive . . . a declension for things we haven't got: koskenkorvsatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It's beautiful, it's like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven't got than that we have."

And this is also about the madness of war, the importance of love ("without someone else beside us, watching us live, we might as well be dead"), about memory and forgetting, about the tragedy of existence, and all these "abouts" are handled so subtly and naturally, occurring so inevitably in the narrative that all I can do, unless I go away and think about it for two weeks, a luxury unavailable to this reviewer, is simply to tell you to read it, and brace yourself for something special.

Nick Lezard in The Guardian

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.

Adrian Turpin in The Financial Times

The title is odd, the cover is grey and the author is a besuited Eurocrat. But beneath these unflamboyant exteriors lie a colourful story. It has taken 10 years, the dedication of a small UK publisher and a perfect-pitch translation to deliver Diego Marani's first novel in English. When it came out in Italian, reviewers called it a masterpiece and it won several prizes. Since then Marani has written five more novels and become a Euro-celebrity for inventing a mock language called "Europanto" – a tossed salad of every European language without rules or grammar.
New Finnish Grammar is definitely not a textbook. It's a beautifully written, intelligent novel which does, however, track the (notoriously difficult) language and history of the Finns. As a professional linguist, Marani was fascinated by Finnish and by the myth-building of a young nation-state.
The story emerges from the turmoil of the Second World War. In 1943 a military doctor, Petri Friari, is working on a German hospital ship moored in Trieste harbour. A young soldier is brought to him, so badly wounded that he has no idea who he is. All he has is a jacket with the Finnish name "SAMPO KARJALAINEN" sewn into it. This leads Petri – originally from Finland – to believe the man is also Finnish; so he helps "Sampo" to rediscover his language and his fatherland.
The men are both exiles in different ways, both struggling with who they are. An archetypal identity drama unfolds as Sampo gradually learns to talk and walk again. Language is central to the narrative. Without it, we have no roots and no memory. As Sampo travels through war-torn Europe "back home" to Finland, he has small breakthrough: "Urgent as a desire to vomit, I felt the sudden need to speak."
In Finland, Sampo lodges with the ebullient Pastor Koskela, who believes that learning their myths and legends will anchor the shattered man. He is encouraged to fall in love: "to switch off his brain and follow his heart". A warm-hearted nurse does her best, but fails. Still Sampo doesn't feel at home: "I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive."
Who is Sampo? This identity thriller delivers plot, bodies and clues – as well as poetic musings on national and individual identity. Marani is obsessed by language and how it defines us. Here's a gifted European linguist also gifted at describing who we are as Europeans.

Rosie Goldsmith in The Independent

... we soon forget we are reading an English translation of an Italian novel. Sheer narrative vim is one reason for this... What gives New Finnish Grammar its true interest, however, is its evocation of a place and language foreign to the author yet, to all appearances, intimately familiar.

Oliver Ready in The Times Literary Supplement

This is a desperately sad book. It takes its place beside Romantic stories of Kaspar Hauser and Wolf Boy of Aveyron which have haunted the European imagination for two centuries. I doubt that it could have been written without the example of Borges. However, Borges limited his narratives to a few pages. Marani, expanding a Borgesian idea to a novel, seems at times to lose his hold on the reader. Yet what he has produced is still a cut above what passes for serious fiction in this country. Judith Landry is to be congratulated on her seamless translation from the Italian, and Dedalus for introducing English readers to a fascinating writer.

Gabriel Josipovici in The New Statesman

Don’t be deceived by New Finnish Grammar's pocket size and unassuming cover. Inside lurks a quirky, original and charming story which has spent the last few weeks on the Guardian bookshop’s bestseller list. The intrigue starts in the prologue:
'Twenty-eight years after having fled Helsinki, I had gone back, my sole reason being to track down the man who, as a result of a cruel misunderstanding on my part, had been unintentionally driven towards a fate which was not his own.'
It's wartime (the Second World War to be exact) and a wounded sailor has turned up in a German hospital ship anchored off Trieste. He has no identifying documents and following a blow to the head finds he can no longer speak, understand, or even remember which language he speaks. The doctor who treats him, a Fin, puts two and two together to deduce that the sailor is Finnish, and sets about re-educating him in his language.
What results is - among other things - a celebration of language, language learning and in particular Finnish, a language that doesn’t often get much attention on the world stage. Author Diego Marani is an EU linguist who has published several books in his native Italian (including one titled 'Come ho imparatole lingue' - 'How I learnt languages'). Hence the language theme, which Marani pulls off with skill and panache. Take the following passages, for example, which nail perfectly the experience of struggling through the incoherence barrier of a foreign language:
'Even the title bristled with dishearteningly long words, studded with umlauts. But, taken letter by letter, the screws that held them so tightly in place began to yield, allowing some drop of meaning to seep out.'
'I had acquired a reasonable mastery of his vocabulary, using my common sense as best I could, leaning limping works up against able-bodied ones in order to move forward'.
If you don’t happen to be a language enthusiast, let me reassure you that there is more. Yes, it is primarily the story of one man’s quest for his lost identity - with a subtextual explorationof language, culture, identity and where they intersect. It's also a story of the tragic misunderstandings which can ensue from the inevitable breakdown in wartime communications, passing by Finnish mythology, Turkic legend and Where God Fits Into It All.
New Finnish Grammar was published around ten years ago in Italian and has won several prizes. It’s easy to see why. Why Marani picked on Finnish is not so clear. The only link I could find was that the fun- and word-loving writer once succeeded in getting the FT to publish a letter in which he masqueraded as a member of the Finnish Embassy in Brussels.
Any Cop?: A love-letter to an under-represented language and a celebration of the slow but satisfying process of becoming proficient in a foreign language. Of course I loved it. But will you? As long as the odd grammar reference doesn’t frighten you off/ bore you stupid, the rest of it should keep you reading and reflecting.

Lucy Chatburn in Bookmunch

First up my bookseller thoughts on ‘New Finnish Grammar’ by Diego Marani. I tend to be more a reader of non-fiction but I have had the great fortune of reading two contemporary literary novels this year that have reminded me that the thoughts explored and language used in certain books can be as exhilarating as any plot line or character, and more rewarding to the reader. The first book that reminded me of this was ‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke. For another novel to come along within a couple of months and capture my imagination as comprehensively is a rare treat indeed, but ‘New Finnish Grammar’ is extraordinary on many levels.
It was originally published in Italy in 2000 and has, I believe, been translated into various languages before this Dedalus Books edition came in May. The plot is pretty straightforward – set during the Second World War a man is found on the quayside in Trieste, he has been beaten up to such an extent that he has completely lost his memory. The only clue to his identity is the name Sampo Karjalainen on a tag sewn in to his sailor’s jacket. A doctor, originally from Finland, takes him under his wing and facillitates the recovery of the man and helps him return to Finland where slowly and painfully he learns to read, write and speak again. The relationship between identity and language underpins the book and the love and respect that the author (and, indeed, Judith Landry the translator) has for words and language is apparent on every single page. I lost count of the number of times that I chuckled quietly or gasped involuntarily at a simple yet beautiful word play. “But only those who are fully acquainted with the power of the word should dare to have recourse to its magic” Marani weaves into this story the troubled history of Russo-Finnish relations, ancient myths and sagas and a doomed love story that is heart-wrenching but never cynical.
A stunning book that deserves the wide audience that it appears to be getting after a gushing review from Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian I know that it is a book that I will be thrusting into peoples hands for years to come urging them to buy it, read it and spread the word. It is the least that I can do for the pleasure that it has given me.

Broad Conversation from Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford

Marani's novel is not as cerebral as all this might seem for the novel's underlying tone is a poetic melancholy - though along the way the reader is left wanting to know more about Finland’s civil war and the country’s role in World War II. It may also leave you wanting to apply the abessive to the Kalevala, the epic poem that Dr Friari recounts in his attempt to make noman a Finn, for like many such epics that have been painted and tainted in nationalist colours we might be better off without them. New Finnish Grammar is very much a story about the need to belong but perhaps the author places too much weight on the role of language and race in our profound need for a sense of home and solidarity; after all there are other ways of belonging and not belonging, like class, and a consideration of other kinds of solidarity might have helped avoid the disconsolate quietism that runs moodily through this novel, like a murky waterway too shallow to navigate and lead somewhere useful.

Sean Sheehan in Irish Left Review

This novel of identity, memory and language rewards careful reading. Marani draws on his linguistic skills and this translation (from the Italian by Judith Landry) should help cement his reputation as an important novelist.

Buzz Magazine

The newly released English edition of an Italian novel set in Finland is now selling like hot cinnamon rolls.

Imagine my surprise: Top of the Guardian newspaper's online bestseller list was a book called New Finnish Grammar. Surely some mistake? How could so many readers be queuing up to discover the perplexing intricacies of the Finnish language? Finland may be attracting plenty of delighted visitors, but how many of them take the trouble to learn more than the basics: kiitos (thank you) and olut (beer)?

New Finnish Grammar mentions the Soviet bombings of the Finnish capital, which created scenes such as this one in the neighbourhood of Hermanni.Upon closer examination, it became clear that New Finnish Grammar is in fact a novel, originally written in Italian by Diego Marani and first published in 2000. UK publisher Dedalus released an English version in 2011. Unlike most foreign literature that makes more than a passing reference to the country, the book attracted little attention when its Finnish edition appeared in 2003. The English version, on the other hand, appears to be jumping off the bookshop shelves and acquiring something of a cult status.

The novel tells of a man found on the quayside in the Italian port of Trieste in the early autumn of 1943. This unidentified character has no memory of previous life or language, but carries a single clue in the from of the nametag on his jacket – Sampo Karjalainen, the Finnish origin of which is recognised by a well-meaning ship’s doctor who has Finnish roots himself.
In the belief that the man’s best chance of rediscovering his identity lies in the north, passage is arranged to Helsinki where an army chaplain named Olof Koskela gradually fills the blank sheet of Sampo’s memory with vodka-fuelled accounts from the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Meanwhile, Sampo is distracted by the affection of a nurse, whose fraught letters from the Karelian front are increasingly resigned to his inability, emotional as much as linguistic, to reply.

New Finnish Grammar and its distinctly grey cover hit the top of the Guardian bestseller list upon the book’s release in English.
The three Italian literary prizes acquired by Marani for this novel are deserved if only for the authentic descriptions of a Helsinki tensed for and battered by war with Russia (the conflict in question being the so-called Continuation War of 1941–1944). From the alternating excitement and boredom of the foreign press corps in the Kämp Hotel to the bloodstained weary troops arriving by train from the front, the trauma of a city at war is convincingly portrayed.
Marani also deserves kudos for his evident understanding of the Finnish language and his knowledge of the complex Kalevala’s dramatis personae. Marani’s interest in language is not surprising in view of his roles as senior EU linguist and inventor of Europanto, a kind of Europe-only Esperanto, but his empathy with Finnish culture is more than academic.
New Finnish Grammar offers much more than a thoroughly researched wartime mystery. In a compact narrative that stops just short of 190 pages, it manages to examine the nature of memory, the connection between language and identity, and the relationship between identity, commitment and love, while interpreting Finland’s ancient myths, through Olof Koskela’s descriptions, as deeply philosophical and contemporary.
Sampo’s name itself is no coincidence: Sampo is the mystical artefact at the heart of the Kalevala, an elusive magic grail, while Karjalainen is the adjective meaning “of Karelia,” referring to the eastern region of Finland, much of which was lost to the Soviet Union at the end of the Continuation War.
“Bright and elusive”
At the same time, rarely can the Finnish language itself have been described so appreciatively by a non-Finn. “Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate: Instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without,” expounds Olof Koskela in one of his tutorials. “As a result, the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in upon itself; here meaning ripens slowly and then, when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive.”
The last word should go to the fine translation by Judith Landry. It's a pity that the publisher made the decision, in a book focusing on language, to do away with the Finnish letters “ä” and “ö” in the English version.But this is a book worth reading for anyone familiar with Finland – and anyone who's not.

Tim Bird in thisisFINLAND

A SAILOR is found so badly beaten, he is not expected to survive. Yet he does and is fortunate in that his doctor in the Trieste hospital is unusually, given that it is wartime, dedicated to not only healing his physical injuries, he wants to help the patient recover his memory. The man is at a loss, he has not only lost his memory, he has lost his language. The only clue to the seaman’s identity is the name Sampo Karjalainen, which is stamped inside the jacket he is wearing. The doctor, although based in Hamburg and working with the German army, is originally from Finland. Although he had left his native country years earlier, the doctor retains his feelings for that homeland, feelings which are complicated by the fate of his father.

First published in Italy in 2000 and reprinted twice within two months of this, its first English language edition, Diego Marani’s eloquent novel brings together two very troubled narrators; the first, the doctor, is burden by guilt and responsibility, the other, the sailor, is slowly climbing towards a sense of self. Readers of the Hungarian lost master Sandor Marai, particularly of novels such as Embers (1942; English trans 2001) and Esther’s Inheritance (1939, English trans 2008), will be drawn to the gracious pathos.

The doctor emerges as a tragic hero, intent on saving the world but aware he is damned. In the character of the sailor, Marani has created a staggering study of loss and an act of retrieval that is heroic. The doctor believes his patient to be a fellow Finn and begins to teach him their shared language. As time passes, the patient begins to write an account of his experience. His narrative forms the greater part of the novel, while the doctor contributes some powerful asides.

The patient records the process of recovering language. “A rich, deep humus had formed, where words were now taking root and thriving. The linguistic memory which my injury had uprooted from my brain was being born afresh in another part of my mind . . .”

The patient recalls being told by the nurses of his doctor’s care. “The day I came out of the coma, the nurses swore that they had glimpsed a tear on one of his far from tender cheeks. He insisted on taking personal charge of my rehabilitation . . . When he realized that I could not speak, that the injury had destroyed my memory for language and my ability to articulate sounds, he hoped in his heart of hearts that I would die.”

The sailor tells his story in a subdued, almost fatalistic tone, yet also conveys his gratitude and wonder that another person, a stranger, could care so much: “ . . . he swore that he would move heaven and earth to get me back to my own country, to give me the chance to pick up the broken thread of memory”. Many aspects of the man’s plight enable the doctor to confront the deep hurt that has festered in his own memory. The doctor finally tells his story, to a helpless stranger. “I had begun telling him my story. I was convinced that he could not understand me, and I was talking mainly in order to vent my feelings, something I had never been able to do, not even with the sailors in the Hamburg church.” The stranger begins to find language, the Finnish tongue the doctor believes to be his. But the sailor can not recover his memory. He sees Helsinki as an alien place and all he can do is hope to find consolation by listening to the folk tales told to him by an old chaplain who explains: “Finnish is one single, unbroken song. Finnish is a language which should only be sung, that is its true form, its morphology. To speak it is like the prose version of a poem. It is for savages who know nothing of poetry.”

The chaplain is a singular character and his remarks open the mind of the lost man. It is heady stuff. “Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were all around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of falling snow.” Through this character Marani is able to explore language as an organic compound. Not only is the narrative concerned with one man’s search for the memory and language he has lost, it is also an examination of what language is and what it means to those who speak it. The sailor’s account is extraordinary, if at times, surprisingly sophisticated – given that he is only learning, or rather, re-learning language. He recalls of the chaplain: “I found his words both complicated and intriguing; each day they bound me ever more closely to my new (or old?) identity.”

Life invariably offers chance but the man who has come to be known as Sampo is unable to take them. When he is confronted by the actual relevance of his name, he is devastated. Equally the doctor makes a discovery that plunges him into despair. This is no melodrama, although there are twists and turns aplenty. Marani’s moving novel about the brutal displacement imposed by war and fate achieves consummate emotional intelligence. The sailor is left wondering how on earth he ended up in Trieste in the first place. He never unravels the truth; the doctor does and that is his share of a very human tragedy.

Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times

Set in the years of the Second World War, a time when Finland was aligned with the Axis powers, New Finnish Grammar is a devastating portrait of the importance of language has in modelling the human subject. Beautifully written – there’s an almost poetic metre to the prose, though never overwrought – it concerns the story of a soldier who is found badly beaten and suffering from both social and linguistic amnesia in the port of Trieste. Stitched on the arm of the man’s naval jacket is the name ’Sampo Karjalainen’, and the treating medic, identifying the name as Finnish, dispatches his patient to Helsinki. Arriving there,’ deprived of his past, his name, his language, obliged to live without memory, nostalgia, dreams,’ the wounded man must learn Finnish – with its vast, impenetrable tangle of inflections – and construct his identity anew As well as raising questions concerning psyche, identity and nationality, Sampo’s confused agony is quite simply one of the most incisive reflections of the trauma that befell Europe during that period that one might ever read.

Oliver Basciano in ArtReview

A wounded sailor is found on a Trieste quay -amnesiac, unable to speak and with nothing to identify him except a name tag pointing to Finnish origins. A passing doctor resolves to teach him Finnish to restore his memory and rebuild his identity. Charming and beguiling.

Summer Reading in The Financial Times

The Italian author Diego Marani's first novel (there are five more) is the story of a mute, wounded amnesiac who fetches up in Trieste in 1940.

The Finnish doctor who treats him – thinking him Finnish on the strength of the name sewn in his jacket – has him sent to Finland. The man keeps a journal recording his attempts to learn the language and establish an identity, during the Soviet invasion of the country; the journal is intercut with commentary from the doctor, who attempted to trace him after the war.

One somehow knows that this couldn't have been written by an English writer. It has a thoroughly European sensibility: intellectual, melancholy, mysterious, imbued with a sense of tragedy and history.

Brandon Robshaw in The Independent on Sunday

Former translator for the EU, and inventor of Europanto (a fictional language which incorporates all the European languages), Diego Marani ist the parfait persona to tell this story. In his novel, a man wakes up with no memory and is forced to relearn language. And the poor bloke happens to end up in Finland. Finnish grammar is notoriously intricate, counting 15 cases for nouns — including one for nouns which are absent. It's an abessive case of amnesia.

Fleur Macdonald in The Spectator

Marani crafts a fine but sad exploration of the burden of memory -- and of the weight of its absence -- and personal identity, and he cleverly uses language here (in a novel that in an abstract way even gains from the additional translation it has undergone, bringing the point home even more strongly). Finnish -- that unusual, outlier language -- is, of course, ideal for these circumstances -- and Marani plays it to the hilt, too, having, for example, one character explain:

'The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self, may indeed no longer recognize it. This does not happen studying other languages, because other languages are merely scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were all around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs.'

They of course never meet the patient's needs (who, with explanations like this, must have wished he'd started over with some -- any ! -- other language ...).
Friari admits to "wreaking his destruction" when writing about the patient in his Prologue, so there's no surprise where this is all going, but New Finnish Grammar is more than just an individual tragedy, too.
A fine book, however, and an appealingly creative work of fiction.

M.A.Orthofer in The Complete Review

a thoughtful, idiosyncratic book and, in its utter disdain for the conventions of literary realism, entirely to be applauded

Joanna Kavenna in The Literary Review

There is an unyieldingness at the heart of Diego Marani’s novel. He presents a world where heroism is expended in a futile task, friendship is sacrificed to despair, and help is rendered in such a way as to further the disaster. Yet this book is full of riches: a landscape so solidly created one can hear the ice crack, a moving examination of what makes a human being, and a restless brooding over the ideas of memory, belonging and identity(all three main characters are in some way lost). It is written in mirror-smooth prose and superbly translated. The story, finally, can’t fail.

Anita Mason in The Warwick Review

Don't be put off by the unwelcoming title: this is an extraordinary book, as good as Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and with a similar mystery at its heart.

Cressida Connolly in The Spectator's Books of the Year

“A Finnish doctor working in Hamburg treats a sailor so badly beaten he is expected to die. He survives but has lost his memory and his language. The doctor, convinced the patient is a fellow Finn, sets out to retrieve the words, hoping identity will follow. Marani’s miraculous novel is profound, moving, elusive and tragic."

Eileen Battersby Books of the Year in The Irish Times

'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.'
Daniel Hahn, Director of the British Centre for Literary Translator

Daniel Hahn, Director of the British Centre for Literary Translator

New Finnish Grammar was awarded The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for 2012, shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Award and The Best Translated Book Award for 2012.

Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar first appeared in Italy 2000, from the pen of an interpreter working for the EU. It is about loss of language, disorientation and survival in a state of translation. Its hero is constructed only by language - he's a kind of replicant. The novel is melancholy, wide-ranging and sensitive, and its many inventive strands placed Judith Landry in a similar position to the protagonist's in many ways, since the story required her to carry across Finnishness as well as Italian, and to convey the sense of profound estrangement that the novel inhabits. The plotting sets one story inside another, including retellings of the Kalevala and dream journeys of the Nordic shamans. It is a highly original, uniquely imagined work. In the words of one of the judges, 'it's a meditation on the whole phenomenon of language-learning and foreignness'.

Marina Warner at The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize Award Ceremony

The hero is discovered in Trieste in 1943, with no words, memory or identity.He is thought (mistakenly) to be a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen, and is sent to Finland to try to recover his former self. The weather is freezing and the grammar confounding. The novel is an amalgam of conversations half understood, relationship thwarted and lonely bus journeys.

Matthew Reynolds in The London Review of Books

'It "has an admirable simplicity ... its strength lies in its many layers," he writes. It is presented as a series of journal extracts written by Sampo, a man with no recollection of his language or identity. The novel follows Sampo's Finnish language-learning journey, while charting the isolation and despair that are tied to it.

The fact that the journals in the novel are edited and collated by a second man, Friari, adds another complexity, which "puts a distance between the reader and Sampo". Howe praises the novel, which was originally written in Italian, as a "masterful, subtle construction of personality and meaning.'

C.P. Howe in The Guardian's Readers Books of the Year

What book would you recommend? Diego Marani's New Finnish Grammar. It's gripping and fascinating.

Jeremy Strong interview in The Guardian

an entrancing,disturbing exploration of the limits of speech and self.

Boyd Tonkin in The Independent

Beautifully written and translated, and beautifully original.

Kate Saunders in The Times

It blew my mind...outstanding.

Of Blog on The Best Translated Fiction

an inventive novel which probed the possibilities of language and its connection with identity.

Alastair Mabbott in The Herald's Paperback of the Week

Perhaps oddly for a novel whose driving force is memory loss this may be the most memorable book I’ll read all year.

Jack Deighton in A Son of the Rock

Relentlessly surprising and beguiling, Diego Marani has written a novel which is simultaneously gentle and disturbing. And powerful.

David Marx's Book Reviews

Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received.

Nick Lezard in The New Statesman

What reader in their right mind would buy a novel called New Finish Grammar? Masterpieces come in all shapes and sizes. I use the 'm' word advisedly, aware that critics are sometimes prone to throwing around more hyperbole than sense. But Diego Marani’s surprising book deserves the epithet. This is a beautifully formed novel, from the framing of its many stories, down to the minutiae of its melancholy sentences...It delves down into the deep linguistic and philosophical roots of what humanity is. Karjalainen’s tragic attempt to recapture his own illusory life is a bracing reminder that we know more about who we aren’t than who we are.

Nick Major in The Sunday Herald

I recently read Diego Marani's New Finnish Grammar . It sounds as dull as Marani’s day job - Officer of Cultural Diplomacy at the European Union. But it is a beautifully formed novel about the reconstruction of selfhood. Sampo Karjalainen has severe amnesia - he has even lost his language - and is recovering on a German hospital ship near Trieste in 1943. His Finnish doctor believes they are fellow countrymen and helps his patient relearn his native tongue. Karjalainen spends his days chasing the image of a person who barely exists: himself.

Nick Major in Picks of the Year in The Scottish Review of Books

New Finnish Grammar explores the curious theme of language and how it shapes our identities. Fans of The English Patient will revel in this forgotten gem.

Chris Flynn in The Big Issue

A wounded soldier is found washed up in Trieste, with no memory and unable to speak. By relearning the Finnish language, he tries to remember' a past life that may be fictional. With each word that he forms in his mouth, he strives towards reinhabiting a self that doesn’t belong to him at all. 'In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive.' Who is “Sampo”, really? An incredible identity thriller unfolds. Bleak, lovely, and as slow and painstaking at times as a grammar lesson.

Eli Goldstone in The Guardian, Top Ten Secrets in Fiction

'The movement between the natural and unnaturalness of identity, and between confidence in and despair of interpretation, gives New Finnish Grammar its drama.'

Henry Zhang in Music & Literature

RRP: £11.99

No. of pages: 187

Publication date: 09.04.2021

Re-print date: 30.06.2024

ISBN numbers:
978 1 912868 21 6
978 1 907650 77 2

World English
Rights sold; Australian & New Zealand(Text Publishers)