As I recently confessed, I wasn’t quite as impressed by Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar as many others were – including the IFFP judges last year who included it on the short list. Marani features again this year on the long list with his second novel to appear in English, The Last of the Vostyachs (Dedalus have also published Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot but as it is written in the artificial language of Europanto it isn’t eligible).
I found The Last of the Vostyachs a slighter but more entertaining work than New Finnish Grammar. Again the focus is very much on language and, despite Marani’s Italian origins, the novel is set largely in Finland (Marani’s obsession with Finland is beginning to look a little like Antonio Tabucchi’s with Portugal). The novel begins with the escape of a young man, Ivan, from a Russian labour camp – he is, we discover, the last remaining speaker of his language, Vostyach. Coincidentally, he is spotted (well, heard) by a Russian professor of linguistics, Olga, who is researching in the area. She is quickly aware of the importance of the discovery:
“…I could hardly believe my ears. They’re all there, the consonants which mark the transition between the Finnic languages and Eskimo-Aleut ones.”
Unfortunately, the one person she shares this news with, a Finnish colleague from years past, Jarmo, is less than pleased. He is at that very moment putting the finishing touches to a speech for an upcoming conference in which he intends to declare categorically that “the alleged kinship between the Ugro-Finnic and the Ural-Altaic branches, from which the Mongols and Eskimos descend, is to be excluded once and for all.” If this were simply an academic disagreement that would be bad enough (and the novel is a little like a campus satire written as a thriller) but Jarma is also driven by a fierce nationalism, ending his speech with the statement “that Finnish is Europe’s oldest language.” That the contradictory evidence is coming from Russia adds to his bitterness.
And so begins an elaborate plot to prevent Olga and Ivan from appearing at the conference. Jarma is helped by the fact that Olga trusts him implicitly, regarding their previous relationship as a friendship when he was only courteous to her to curry favour with his superior at the time. Olga and Ivan also conveniently intend to arrive separately, placing Ivan in Jarma’s hands. Despite its esoteric premise the novel races along like a true thriller, with nothing in Jarma’s plot going quite right: Ivan goes missing; Olga drinks endlessly but refuses to keel over; and his ex-wife is on his trail with the police – attempting to return his pet dog to him.
Everything is wrapped up in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek manner, and the novel ends with the language of Vostyach alive and well. New Finnish Grammar is no doubt a more substantial work, but beneath this novel’s fun there is a serious point about the dangers of nationalism. In his attempts to promote his language Jarma moves swiftly from academic deception to murder.