Posts Tagged ‘diego marani’

God’s Dog

February 11, 2014

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Don’t be fooled by the sombre portrait on the cover of Diego Marani’s new novel courtesy of 15th century Italian painter Giovanni Bellini: just as in the novel nothing is what it seems, the book itself seems to be saying “historical” while hiding a heart as dystopian as 1984. Marani shot to prominence when Dedalus published his 2000 novel, New Finnish Grammar, in English in 2011; this was followed in 2012 by The Last of the Vostyachs, which had appeared in Italian in 2002. Now we jump forward ten years as Judith Landry (once again) translates his latest novel, God’s Dog. The overall impression is of a restless, questioning mind with scant regard for genre.

Of the three, I must admit that God’s Dog is my favourite: it not only grabbed my attention within a few pages but plunged me into its world with the senses-shocking invigoration of an ice bath. That world is a near future Italy which is in the hands of a Catholic theocracy:

“The Catholic Republic was by now on a firm footing. Internal dissent was minimal. The anti-papists preferred to leave Italy rather than mount any opposition.”

The novel’s main protagonist is not a rebel but a servant of this state. Domingo Salazar is a Haitian orphan who has been brought up by the church and now works as an agent for them. He is tasked with rooting out any members of the Free Death Brigade, an outlawed pro-euthanasia group, masquerading as relatives at a hospital for the terminally ill:

“If men cease to fear death, or regard it as something run-of-the-mill, our sway over them is seriously threatened.”

The church also suspects that the dying father of a wanted abortionist, Ivan Zago, is hidden among the patients and that this might flush Zago out of hiding. The novel then proceeds conventionally with meetings with his vicar ‘handler’ in the confessional, observations of staff and visitors, the identifying and following of a suspect – only now and then dipping into Salazar’s diary to discover his religious views are more complex than we might expect for a ‘dog’. This changes when the narrative begins to fracture and sections reveal Zago and fellow ‘terrorist’, Marta Quinz. At the same time the plot also starts to fragment: Zago is after revenge for his father’s treatment; Quinz and others are planning to disrupt the canonisation of Benedict XVI; and Salazar is suspected of being unfaithful to the church as a result of his friendship with an Islamic scientist, Guntur.

It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate the dystopian nature of the novel in the UK where the idea of a religious state seems unlikely (although Kingsley Amis wrote an alternative history where the Reformation didn’t happen and Europe is controlled by the Catholic Church). Much of the satire is directed at Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI – who is quoted throughout and whose nickname was the Pope’s Rottweiler. This is also, however, a novel of ideas, articulating religion’s fear of science, and once again exploring the issue of language. The Catholicism it presents is ferocious and ruthless (like a dog) but also reasoned and calculating. Marani’s master stroke is centring the debate on an ambivalent character, one who is neither hero nor villain, and with whom the reader’s sympathies rise and fall.

The more I read of Marani’s, the more interesting he becomes.

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The Last of the Vostyachs

April 5, 2013

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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.

New Finnish Grammar

April 20, 2012

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.