'New Finnish Grammar' by Diego Marani was a random library find, picked for the incredibly unappealing title; it is so unpromising it felt like the author was challenging you to pick it up and read it. (I also came across this interesting article, written by Judith Landry, the translator, about working on this book.) It is only a short novel (yes, not a Finnish grammar) but had taken me quite some time to get through. It is about Finnish though, and the role of language in our sense of identity.
Set during the Second World War it concerns a man who awakes to find himself on a ship but he has been badly injured and utterly lost his memory, to the point where he does not even know how to talk. He is taken under the wing of Doctor Friari, who writes small parts of this tale, filling in the gaps of the story that Sampo tells. Based on the flimsy evidence of a name in the jacket he was wearing the doctor convinces him he must be finnish and having begun the process of teaching him to speak again he arranges for him to travel back to Finland (the doctor himself is finnish and so thinks he is aiding a compatriot). Once there he is 'adopted' by Olof Koskela, the chaplain at the hospital, who sets about systematically instructing him:
"In Finnish to know is tietaa and tie means road, or way. Because of us Finns knowledge is a road, a path leading us out of the woods, into the sunlight, and the person who knew the way in the olden times was the magician, the shaman who drugged himself with magic mushrooms and could see beyond the woods, beyond the real world. It is of course true that is more than one path to knowledge, indeed there are many. In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative." (p.56)
Along with his struggle with the strange permutations of Finnish the main theme of the book is the war and the ongoing battle for control of Finland between German and Russian forces. The bleakness of the atmosphere only worsened by the finnish winter with it's endless darkness and cold; I love this bit with "fear oozed into the city", the book is full of such lovely watery and icy metaphors:
"Dusk came early at that time of year. The snow was not enough to light up the empty city, barred and bolted as it was, with all the windows dark. the main monuments, caged in by wooden beams, were reminiscent of the catafalques of some forgotten religion. The buildings in the city centre were empty, the ministries and government offices deserted, having been transferred to underground premises out of town. Although it was not yet at war, Helsinki was a city in a state of siege; the only people in its streets were hurried civilians and drunken soldiers. Fear oozed into the city from the frozen bay, lapping at the streets and squares. Death entered it with the trainloads of refugees, and spread throughout the smoke-filled lairs where the few remaining inhabitants had taken refuge." (p.60)
Sampo tries to absorb a sense of 'finnishness', he is trying to establish a new identity for himself and create a sense of belonging by re-learning his language. But it is not like simply learning a foreign language, it is more like a child, making sense of the whole idea of language, spoken words themselves are alien to him. In a way the author is trying to make the reader think more abstractly about words, why they are, why grammar happens and what purpose it serves, how language imparts meaning. When you learn to speak as a baby all these ideas are irrelevant, but for Sampo they are part of what he is trying to understand. His sense of isolation and loneliness are tempered by sitting with soldiers in the bars and singing along with patriotic songs, getting a sense of emotion from them even when he cannot understand the words themselves:
"I copies out the words of the Porilaisten marssi, barely understanding them, as though they were the ingredients of some secret spell, and now they struck me as more magical than ever. Of all the words I'd written in that notebook, it was the ones that had made the soldiers cry that most intrigued me. That they had to do with war was plain as a pikestaff. Some of them were quite long, full of repeated vowels, with umlauts like helmets and aitches like slung arms. Others, much shorter, chopped off by apostrophes, seemed to be waving their stumps in the direction of the empty line. Certain capital letters referred to places where famous battles had taken place, although I could not recognise them. I saw the word for flag, and it did indeed seem to flutter, making a snapping sound as it left one's lips." (p.84)
He forges a friendship with a young nurse, Ilma, but his feeling of dislocation is so overwhelming he does not trust himself to become attached to her. She is the only person who seems to understand what is missing for him, but she, like the chaplain, tries to get him to focus on the present and the future rather than the past. The war separates them and although she writes letters he is unable to answer her, as if the langauge he has learned is still so alien it is inadequate for expressing his feelings:
"For me, my childhood is an old photo I always carry with me, just a close-up of when I was a gap-toothed ten-year-old little girl. But the dress I'm wearing in that faded photograph, the rather hazy background with our big old country house, they are a mine of memories that leap out to greet me every time I look at it. I understand how painful such a lack of memories must be, how awful it must be to have nothing but emptiness behind you." (p.117)
In the end there is Doctor Friari's comment about all he had achieved in his struggle to learn Finnish, it kind of sums the problem up, that it could not become part of him or give him any sense of identity, because as it turns out it was never his language:
"All in all, it might indeed be said that that man had learned, or perhaps constructed his own personal version of the Finnish language, a language all his own, handworked and roughly cut, where each word needed correcting, filing down, before it could come into complete possession of its meaning." (p.160)
Sampo is something of a blank slate, you have sympathy for him and his plight, and his steely determination to forge something for himself is quite admirable, but he remains an enigma. In the end his hopeless situation is swallowed up by the far greater one of history, which has the casting vote on how things turn out for everyone. A book with much to say about the importance of language to human identity. Along the way I learned a bit of Finnish history, folklore and a bit about grammar, but I'm pretty sure that learning Finnish is not something I plan to tackle in the near future.
"Language's prescriptive baggage comes into being less to facilitate its comprehension, than to prevent foreigner's access to it. Each language barricades itself behind the hard won knowledge of its grammar, like a secret sect behind its mumbo jumbo. But language is not a religion in which one can believe or not believe. Language is a natural phenomenon, peculiar to all humanity. Humanity stupidly divided it up into a plurality of grammars, each claiming to be the 'right' one, to reflect the clarity of thought of a whole people. Thus each people learns the rules of its own grammar, deluding itself that it is these same rules that will resolve life's mysteries." (p.131)