Don’t be deceived by New Finnish Grammar’s pocket size and unassuming cover. Inside lurks a quirky, original and charming story which has spent the last few weeks on the Guardian bookshop’s bestseller list. The intrigue starts in the prologue:
“Twenty-eight years after having fled Helsinki, I had gone back, my sole reason being to track down the man who, as a result of a cruel misunderstanding on my part, had been unintentionally driven towards a fate which was not his own.”
It’s wartime (the Second World War to be exact) and a wounded sailor has turned up in a German hospital ship anchored off Trieste. He has no identifying documents and following a blow to the head find she can no longer speak, understand, or even remember which language he speaks. The doctor who treats him, a Fin, puts two and two together to deduce that the sailor is Finnish, and sets about re-educating him in his language.
What results is – among other things – a celebration of language, language learning and in particular Finnish, a language that doesn’t often get much attention on the world stage. Author Diego Marani is an EU linguist who has published several books in his native Italian (including one titled ‘Come ho imparatole lingue’ – ‘How I learnt languages’). Hence the language theme, which Marani pulls off with skill and panache. Take the following passages, for example, which nail perfectly the experience of struggling through the incoherence barrier of a foreign language:
“Even the title bristled with dishearteningly long words, studded with umlauts. But, taken letter by letter, the screws that held them so tightly in place began to yield, allowing some drop of meaning to seep out.”
“I had acquired a reasonable mastery of his vocabulary, using my common sense as best I could, leaning limping works up against able-bodied ones in order to move forward”
If you don’t happen to be a language enthusiast, let me reassure you that there is more. Yes, it is primarily the story of one man’s quest for his lost identity – with a subtextual explorationof language, culture, identity and where they intersect. It’s also a story of the tragic misunderstandings which can ensue from the inevitable breakdown in wartime communications, passing by Finnish mythology, Turkic legend and Where God Fits Into It All.
New Finnish Grammar was published around ten years ago in Italian and has won several prizes. It’s easy to see why. Why Marani picked on Finnish is not so clear. The only link I could find was that the fun- and word-loving writer once succeeded in getting the FT to publish a letter in which he masqueraded as a member of the Finnish Embassy in Brussels.
Any Cop?: A love-letter to an under-represented language and a celebration of the slow but satisfying process of becoming proficient in a foreign language. Of course I loved it. But will you? As long as the odd grammar reference doesn’t frighten you off / bore you stupid, the rest of it should keep you reading and reflecting.