I first read New Finnish Grammar last year on the back of an enthusiastic review from Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian who described it as “something special”. I was, however, underwhelmed. This is not to say I regarded it as a poor novel or undeserving of praise, but I simply didn’t feel it stood out among the other novels I was reading (admittedly, I was spending the year reading experimental fiction). Now that it has reached the shortlist of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (as well as being a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award) I thought it was only fair to try again, knowing that the fault was as likely to be mine as the book’s.
The novel begins with an introduction by an ex-patriot Finnish doctor, Petri Friari, who has compiled and edited the manuscript which follows, but is also an important character, the catalyst for the story we are about to hear, “having set the author of these pages on a mistaken course, thus wreaking his destruction.” The doctor’s complex relationship with his homeland (his father was executed during civil war and he now lives in exile in Germany) is at least partly responsible for his conviction that the unconscious man who is brought to him and wakes with no memory is Finnish, the only clues to his identity being the name Sampo Karlajainen written on a label on his jacket and a handkerchief with the matching initials S.K.
“It is true, I too would have liked to have been sailing back to Finland; to take advantage of the chaos of war in order to do away with the neurologist from the military hospital in Hamburg and replace him with the Helsinki university student of twenty-six years earlier.”
For he soon sends Karlajainen to Finland in the belief that this will enable him to recover his identity as he relearns the Finnish language which Friari considers his mother tongue. The novel’s concern with identity, nationality and language is clear, and is explored in some detail when Karlajainen arrives in Finland. Unable to locate the doctor he has been referred to by Friari, he helps in the military hospital and befriends the Military Chaplain, Olof Koskela, a fiercely patriotic if slightly unhinged individual who regales him with tales from Finnish mythology. Karlajainen’s fascination with Koskela is hard to fathom, especially as he shows no desire to be close to anyone else, but perhaps, as with Friari, he is looking for someone to tell him who he is:
“I found his words both complicated and intriguing; each day they bound me ever more closely to my new (or old?) identity.”
However, he remains doubtful as to his true identity:
“We had mingled but not totally bonded, Finland and I; something in me remained untouched by this mingling as though deep down some buried identity was refusing to be wiped out and was struggling furiously to rise to the surface.”
An encounter with one of the nurses, Ilma, in a bar might offer some companionship, but Kaarlajainen finds he cannot accept it:
“Ilma – perhaps she was the answer; but I could not love Ilma without first knowing who I was.”
When Koskjela leaves to fight the Russians, Karlajainen is entirely alone. When he discovers the truth about who he is, he is filled with despair and the novel heads towards the tragic conclusion intimated in the introduction.
New Finnish Grammar, then, has both an interesting set-up and an intelligent presentation. It pursues its themes of identity, nationality and language with some subtlety using its wartime setting and its small cast of characters. It suffers a little from the blandness of the prose which leaves each of the narrators sounding the same. Perhaps that’s why I found Karlajainen’s predicament unengaging for much of the novel, and was ultimately left rather cold by the ending. It is clear, however, that Marani is an interesting writer and there is enough here to make me look forward The Last of the Vostyachs, published next month, and perhaps even his Europanto work, Las Adventures Des Inspector Cabillot, which follows.