Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bronwyn Reviews: New Finnish Grammar

Translated by Judith Landry
Pages: 192
Publisher: Melville House  
Released: 2013
(Originally published by Bompiani in 2000)

Guest reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin

This book is not about Finnish grammar, of course. It is about language, specifically, the role of language in constructing identity. How do you know who you are if you lack a language to express it? Are you a different person in different languages? How does language shape a nation?  

It’s 1943 in Trieste, a port city that has been the crossroads of cultures for centuries. A man has been found, unconscious and badly injured. He is brought to a German military medical ship where a Finnish doctor, Petri Friari, treats him. When the man wakes, he has no memory of himself or who is he is. He has even lost his language. The sailor’s jacket he was wearing when found has a tag with the name Sampo Karjalainen: a Finnish name. Doctor Friari takes on Sampo as a special case, grateful for the opportunity to speak his native language. When Sampo is well enough, he sends him to Helsinki where, they both hope, memories will be reignited and he will recover his language, his memories and his lost self.

The story is told primarily by Sampo, in a journal Doctor Friari finds three years later. What we are reading, Sampo wrote as he was only beginning to learn Finnish. The doctor explains that he has taken the journal he found, the broken bits of spare and often ungrammatical language, its lists of words, drawings, a few letters and newspaper clippings, and reconstructed them into something more fluent. As the doctor rewrites Sampo’s journal, he intersperses within it his own story of exile from Finland, and the two come together powerfully in the end.

Finnish is a linguistic anomaly. It is unrelated to the languages of its nearest neighbors in Scandinavia or Russia. Estonian is in the same Finno-Ugric language family, as are some of the Sami languages to the north, a few tribal languages in the Ural Mountains, and Hungarian. Doctor Friari tells Sampo as he leaves for Helsinki,

“Finnish is the language in which you were brought up, the language of the lullaby that sent you to sleep each night. Apart from studying it, you must learn to love it. Think of each word as though it were a magic charm which might open the door to memory. Say each word aloud as though it were a prayer – prayers are made up of words.”

That this orphaned man has been sent to learn an orphan language is as tragic as it is ironic, for, as we learn in Doctor Friari’s prologue, he misunderstood the clues to Sampo’s identity. This man without a language is not a man named Sampo from Finland, but he will discover this too late.

Sampo arrives in Helsinki. He travels the city in search of memories, and of people who might remember him. He studies Finnish language and history under the tutelage of the kind but mad Chaplain Olof Koskela who uses the Kalevala, Finland’s great work of epic poetry, as his text. This work was instrumental in the development of a Finnish national identity, perfect for a man who is trying to find his own identity and history. As they study together, they drink liberally from a bottle of koskenkorva (Finnish barley vodka) that somehow always remains halfway full.

In his journal, Sampo describes his struggle to grasp Finnish grammar:

“I spread them out on the table as though they were maps of my personal campaigns, filling every last bit of them with formulae as unforgiving as equations, where every letter that I wrote weighed heavy as lead in terms of sheer mental effort. Fragile as houses of cards but logically indestructible, those syntactical digests were my defence against an enemy who was attacking me from behind.”  

New Finnish Grammar was written originally in Italian by Diego Marani, linguist, translator and novelist, and the inventor of his own language, Europanto. Perhaps only a linguist could understand how grammar and its discontents create both persons and nations. As Doctor Friari tells us,

“Language is a natural phenomenon, peculiar to all humanity. Human stupidity has 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.”

Sampo’s story plays out against a backdrop of the seasons as Helsinki transitions from winter ice to spring melt to summer mud. At the edge of these are preparations by the Finnish army to defend the country from an impending invasion by Russia. As the Russians attack, Sampo’s story comes to its inevitable and yet surprising climax.

When Doctor Friari finally learns the truth of Sampo’s origin, he realizes it was his own experience in exile, his loss of identity and the homesickness he has suffered, that drove him to see this patient without a name or language, as a fellow countryman. He sent Sampo to Finland because he so desperately wanted to return there himself.

“Sometimes human thought gets lost in the warren of its own logic, becomes a slave to a geometry which is an end in itself, whose aim is no longer the understanding of reality, but the bolstering of some prior assumption. We are such monstrous egoists that we would rather destroy ourselves pursuing false truths than admit that we are on the wrong track.”


Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.

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