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Diego Marani: Nuova grammatica finlandese (New Finnish Grammar)

Without having any evidence for this at all, I am guessing that Marani, when employed as a translator at the European Union, found himself in the position other translators and interpreters have found themselves in. One of the problems the EU faces, with its many languages, is having people translate from one less used language (and, by less used, I mean any language other than English, French or German) to another. There are not, for example, many Italians who can translate from Finnish to Italian. He was therefore probably encouraged to study another less common EU language and chose Finnish and, at the EU’s expense, was sent off to Finland where he studied the language and became conversant with both the language and the people and culture of Finland. Of course, I could be completely wrong and the real reason is that he had a Finnish girlfriend.

This story is Finland and, more particularly, Finnish, seen from an Italian perspective. More than that it is a sad story but also a story that tells us how much we are the language we speak. It starts in 1943. A group of sailors from a German hospital ship, anchored in Trieste, have found a man who is badly injured and unconscious. A bloody lead pipe is found next to him, clearly the weapon used in the assault. He is taken onto their ship, the Tübingen, where is he looked after. There are two clues to his identity. The first is a jacket. On the lining, the name Sampo Karjailanen has been sewn. There is also a handkerchief, with the initials SK on it. Though the doctor – Dr Friari – who treats him is German, he is of Finnish origin, with one parent of each nationality. He had left Finland when things got bad there. He has not returned and has lived in Hamburg but still feels very much attached to Finland, having set up a small Finnish community in Hamburg and keeping in touch with friends and family in Finland. He clearly recognises Sampo Karjailanen as a Finnish name. The injured man has forgotten everything – not just his name, why he was there and other personal details but also language. He cannot speak a word of any language.

Dr Friari soon takes him in hand, seeing him as a connection to the Finland he so misses and starts teaching him Finnish. He manages to learn some basic words but not much. However, the hospital ship is there to offload German military who have been injured, and have them shipped back to Germany by rail. Eventually, it is decided, through Dr Friari’s influence, that Sampo will be taken to Germany and thence to Helsinki, which happens. Dr Friari has a very good friend, Dr Lahtinen, in Helsinki who will look after Sampo and help him regain his Finnishness (Marani uses a similar word in Italian which I have translated as Finnishness). When Sampo arrives back in Helsinki, however, there are two problems. Firstly Dr Friari’s friend is not there, away at the front, though expected imminently. Secondly, Finland is in the middle of the Continuation War with the Soviet Union. This means not only lots of wounded but also continual bombing of Helsinki by the Soviets. Sampo is placed in a military dormitory (though, for most of the time, he will be on his own). He is told that once Dr Lahtinen returns, the situation will be resolved. Of course, Dr Lahtinen never returns and Sampo is more or less forgotten.

However, two people pay attention to him. The first is Pastor Koskela who makes it his mission to teach him not only Finnish (which he does fairly well) but also Finnishness. In particular, he teaches him about the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala and its importance to Finland. The second is a nurse, Ilma, who had helped him on arrival and whom he bumps into later. Dr Friari had told him that it was important for him to recover language but also to find a nice woman to share his life with. They become friendly but she is called away to serve at the front and they start a correspondence.

Much of the book, however, is Sampo learning what language means and its importance to people and also what it means to be part of a culture. He tries to be part of Finnish culture and, at times, feels glimpses of it but most of the time he feels alienated, even though it is all that he has. He does become involved, helping out at the hospital, and even getting involved in a scheme to deceive the Soviet bombers. He also follows the news from the front, as he frequently spends time with the journalists in the nearby hotel. But, ultimately, what makes this novel is Marani’s linguist’s sensitivity to the issue of language and culture and the nature of Finnishness (made all the more interesting, as it is seen from an Italian’s perspective). Fortunately for those who do not read Italian, and surprisingly, it has been translated into English by the very wonderful Dedalus.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 2000 by Bompiani
First English translation 2010 by Dedalus