Diego Marani - New Finnish Grammar

Diego Marani

New Finnish Grammar

(translated by Judith Landry)

Dedalus, 187 pages 

Neue Finnische Grammatik, the German title of this novel, caught my eye at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. How could it not?! 

In Finnish to know is tietää, and tie means road, or way. Because for 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 there is more than one possible 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)


In September 1943, a badly beaten man is brought to Petri Friari, a Finnish doctor working in Trieste. Because the man has no memory of who he is or how he’d gotten there, has no memory of language or even speech for that matter, the only clue to his identity is a sailor’s jacket with the name Sampo Karjalainen on its collar and a handkerchief with the initials S.K. embroidered on it. Doctor Friari begins to teach the young man Finnish, in the hopes that the language will bring back his memory of who he is. He sends Sampo to a hospital in Finland where he is cared for by a young nurse, and receives further lessons in the Finnish language from the army chaplain.


How many words were needed to bring a man to life! (p. 70)


One of the passages I marked while reading was where Sampo explains what he most likes about the Finnish language: the abessive.


“The abessive? But that’s a case, a declension!” she shot back in amusement.

“Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivotta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have. All the best words in this world should be declined in the abessive.” (p. 82)


But no spoilers about how Sampo’s search for himself ends.

I believe language is an integral part of who you are (or who you perceive yourself to be, which may be two completely different matters in some cases.)

One of the (numerous) reasons I wanted my boys to learn Finnish was that I did want them to have a sense of actually being Finnish themselves, as opposed to the slightly more distanced ‘my mom is Finnish’. Of course they would technically still be half Finnish even without knowing the language, but the connection wouldn't feel as strong.

But no matter what languages you grow up with, each further language or culture you are exposed to, is an enrichment. (Even if some people are of the opinion that trying to learn the Finnish language can drive you to the edge of madness. J)


And yes, you are absolutely right. The name Diego Marani does not sound Finnish at all – the author is Italian...