It’s been a great year for discovering new writers and stumbling across outstanding novels. “New Finnish Grammar” is the 42nd novel that I have reviewed on this blog in the last eleven months and I’d be hard pressed to find ten that I’d tell you to avoid. I believe that this is not because I’m overly accommodating but simply because I have made up my reading lists from various international awards. Although not overly impressed with a few novels on the IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize shortlist, the winner was still a standout (as was last year’s), I then moved on to reading the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist and the first two that I have read from this award have impressed me beyond belief. Of course they reek of “European sensibility: intellectual, melancholy, mysterious, imbued with a sense of tragedy and history” (The Independent on Sunday), but then again why wouldn’t they? They’re European!
Set during the second world war, this novel opens with a note from Petri Friari, a neurologist, explaining that the following pages have been taken from a manuscript, written in broken Finnish in a school exercise book, by a recovering soldier that he had treated years before. We then move to the manuscript and back in time to the first thoughts of that wounded soldier. His memory completely blank, he has awoken from his coma on board a hospital vessel off the coast of Trieste.
As I learned later, right from those early days, the doctor was speaking to me in Finnish, his own language, which he believed also to be my own. He hoped that the soft, welcoming words of my mother tongue would soothe my pain and lessen my bewilderment, making me feel that I was among friends. I did not try to talk because I simply did not feel the need. All linguistic feeling, all interest in words, had died away. I could not speak any language, I no longer knew which was my own. But I was aware of this: a subtle veil, like a form of hypnosis, was shielding me from the violent colours of reality.
As the doctor believes the patient is a Finn by the name of Sampo Karjalainen he arranges for him to return to Finland in the hope he can relearn the language and that he can find, via a memory jolt, his own identity. The journal comes to us in many forms, replicated speeches from the local Military Chaplain Olef Koskela:
Beware how you bring up your sons, your future generations – do not let them be lulled to sleep by strangers. Children who are cradled without gentleness, raised uncaringly, dragged up harshly, will not become intelligent, will never have the gift of wisdom, will never become men, even should they grow up strong and healthy and live for a hundred years!
Letters from a local nurse who befriends our protagonist before moving to the war front:
Thinking of you gives me a new lightness, lets me float free of the ballast of memory. Strangely, what you are so doggedly in search of drags me down, it is a form of slavery to which I cling. What others remember of us is in fact nothing more than the effect that we had on them. We spend our lives brushing up against our fellow humans without ever really knowing them.
And of course the narrative by the doctor who is presenting us Sampo’s journal:
I had not yet realised that nothing that concerns man ever happens the same way twice, that nothing is made to last and that the feelings by which I was being carried away would be vastly outlived by the organs which were producing them.
The mystery of our central character and his real character is obviously secondary to the whole novel which grapples with the issues of language, grammar, identity, memory, relationships and our place in the world. However there is the ever remaining tension of the possibility of Sampo suddenly recalling his past. I found myself frequently stopping throughout the journey, simply to allow the previous page or two to sink in, and a number of sections I did purposely re-read, not because I was perplexed but simply because they had so much depth.
A masterful book which rates amongst my favourites of the year, tackling the eternal existentialist questions and reading so smoothly that you have to occasionally stop and acknowledge that this is an English translation of an Italian novel about the Finnish language!!! Another worth hunting down if you like your novels to offer a raft of sage words to contemplate.