Diego Marani: New Finnish Grammar

Diego Marani New Finnish Grammar

New Finish Grammar is a novel that tells of a sailor who is found in the harbour of Trieste. He has lost his memory, and is unable to speak. All that there is to identify him is a name tag, Sampo Karjalainen, that suggests a Finnish origin. A doctor teaches him Finnish, and he makes his way to Finland.

This novel is a prose poem, like Elizabeth Smart’s novel By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept, which starts with unforgettable words:

I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in . . . But then it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusting as the untempted.  And, for a moment, at that gaze, I am happy to forgo my future, and postpone indefinitely the miracle hanging fire.

On page 91 of New Finnish Grammar: The Magic Tree, there are the words:  This is the magic tree – the tree of happy memories!  It’s here that I hang all the good things that have happened to me in this city.  Of course, it’s more impressive when it’s in leaf – summer evenings are the time to come, when the light is red and the air taut as a sail.  That’s when it casts its spell.

The protagonist, Sampo, asks Ilma, the woman who fails to break down the barriers that he has put up if she has memory trees wherever she goes, and the answer is, no, in this life we are entitled to only one memory tree.

While you’re reading this book, you want to know what is going to happen, but in fact what happens isn’t really very important.  What is important is how the protagonist sees himself and what is happening to him.  There are some serious shocks: discovering that Sampo Karjalainen isn’t his name, but the name of a battleship.  Another shock is that the Pastor, who has given Sampo some sort of guidance, leaves, without Sampo understanding why. Disclosing these developments doesn’t really matter; I don’t have to worry about issuing a warning. By the time the reader has got to this point he or she will know that anything can happen, or not happen.

On page 82 we meet my old friend the abessive case.  When I was a lecturer I used to go out to East Africa to do research, and in a mission hospital a doctor told me about the abessive case that some nilotic languages have, indicating the absence of something, and which apparently Finnish has as well.  There is a suffix in some of these languages which is added to a noun to indicate the absence of something.  The best one can do is to translate as food-not, or wife-not.  But it isn’t like English, where we add the suffix –less to a noun and turn it into an adjective: foodless or wifeless, or armless.  In these nilotic languages it’s a positive thing.  He has something: food-not.  He has wife-not.  I could never get my mind round this.

One of the most interesting passages, I thought, was around page 131, where we start off with grammar as an exact science, and then Marani chips away at this, and in the end we’re a long way from that view.  Grammar isn’t an exact science, of course.  In fact, does grammar exist at all?

As I was reading I wondered if Heidegger, the philosopher, was going to pop up.  He’s known for one of his aphorisms, relevant here, crudely translated as “You don’t speak the language, the language speaks you”, which means that the structure and conventions of your language constrain how you can speak or even think about things.  How amazing that someone writing in Italian, one of the more straightforward of the romance languages, has become fascinated by this weird language, Finnish.

And also, how amazing that Marani has invented a language, Europanto, without rules or grammar.  How can you have a language without rules or grammar?  How could you learn to speak it?  How could you play chess if any move was permissible, and you could capture an opponent’s piece in any way you liked?  When you live with someone, you have to negotiate the understandings about what is permissible and what isn’t.  No sex with the au pair, what you earn has to pay the mortgage, buy the food.  And if there aren’t conventions about language, how can you even negotiate this?  No means no.  Doesn’t it? So we do have to have rules to live by.  Or guidelines, perhaps. The protagonist of this novel never really learns to live with the rules.  Unlike Ilma.  Women know about rules, guidelines. They will forgive, but not everything.  Ilma never had the chance to forgive.  That’s what gives the book intellectual cohesiveness: no happy ending.

Wiki says “As of 2005, Marani no longer actively promotes Europanto.”

David Franks


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