Trieste 1943. A man wakes on a German hospital ship without language, without memory. The only apparent clue to his identity is the name sewn inside his navy sailor’s jacket: Sampo Karjalainen.
Recognising the name as Finnish, his doctor, Friari, who is also a Finn, sends the man to Helsinki, the only place he might ever find a language and an identity to which he belongs. The premise, married as it is to the Finnish national myth of the Kalevala, and to Finland’s dramatic involvement in WW2, is desperately appealing. But the result, oddly for such a short book, seems long-winded. ‘Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate,’ says a Kalevala-obsessed priest, the man’s only friend in Finland, ‘instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without.’ Yes, we do find our shape in the spaces words do not fill; and language and memory are insubstantial, but Marani labours this central thesis through repetition. His sin, which is not the fault of the translation from the original Italian, is simply one of dullness.
Diego Marani / New Finnish Grammar / Text Publishing