Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Last Chronicle of IFFP 2012

As some of you may recall, I took part (not so long ago) in a rather audacious venture entitled the Shadow IFFP in which yours truly and a bunch of intrepid bloggers attempted to read all fifteen longlisted titles for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and second guess the opinions of the real panel - something we proved to be very bad at.  But isn't that all over, I hear you cry, past tense?  Well, not quite...

You see, I did my best to get through all of the fifteen titles, but in the end I was only able to notch up fourteen, my library, which had been amazing up to this point, failing to get my purchase request back to me on time.  Luckily, they didn't give up - and neither did I.  This post is review number fifteen; so, have I saved the best for last?

What's it all about?
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (translated by Judith Landry) was shortlisted for the real prize, beaten to the award by some book I don't particularly wish to talk about now.  The story is set during the Second World War, but the plot actually has little to do with the war.  We are presented with a journal of sorts, written in Finnish, with an introduction and frequent commentaries from a navy medic, Doctor Friari.  The main writer is Sampo Karjalainen, a Finnish sailor (and amnesiac) found in Trieste after having been attacked and left for dead.

When the good doctor, a native Finn, sees the name sewn inside the sailor's coat, he realises that he must be a countryman and promptly decides to nurse him back to health - and teach him a little of the native language he appears to have forgotten.  Once back in Helsinki, Sampo sets about mastering the notoriously tricky Finnish vernacular, hopeful of recovering his memory and his past.  That depends of course on whether he has one - and whether Doctor Friari's assumption was correct..

I loved this book, but considering the subject matter that's not a huge surprise.  My background is in linguistics and intercultural communication, and the vital connection between language and culture is the cornerstone of the novel.  Poor Sampo is adrift in a strange world, bereft of his early experiences, and he clings to the language he has been told is his, desperately trying to master in the space of a few months what would normally take an adult a lifetime.

Marani is a master linguist, and his evocation of an adult learner's struggles with a new language is a delight, the bewildered seaman adrift on a sea of rounded vowels and nouns with fifteen declensions, grasping onto any recognisable sound emerging from a speaker's lips as if it were a lifebelt or a sturdy piece of flotsam.  Sampo listens and listens, enjoying the sound of the words even if he does not quite grasp the meaning, storing up vocabulary in his mind for later perusal.  However, despite his passion for the language, he can't help wondering whether Friari has made a mistake, one which will doom Sampo to failure; for as Friari himself remarks:
"A learnt language is just a mask, a form of borrowed identity; it should be approached with appropriate aloofness, and its speaker should never yield to the lure of mimicry, renouncing the sounds of his own language to imitate those of another.  Anyone who gives in to this temptation is in danger of losing their memory, their past, without receiving another in exchange." Dedalus Books, 2011 (p.52)

As much as the story is about Sampo and his struggles though, it is also about those characters who attempt to help him, unable to avoid the temptation of scribbling on the tabula rasa of his amnesiac personality.  Doctor Friari, a Finn forced to leave his homeland after the civil war, sees what he wants to see when he stumbles across poor Sampo, desperate to redeem himself and his family in the eyes of a fellow Finn.

When Sampo arrives in Helsinki, he finds himself under the wing of Pastor Olof Koskela, a charismatic, patriotic Lutheran minister, a man with a passionate knowledge of Finnish myths, determined to teach Sampo his forgotten heritage.  Where Koskela attempts to fill in linguistic and historical gaps, a nurse, Ilma Koivisto, tries to help him in a more emotional way.  Sadly, none of Sampo's benefactors are able to convince him that he really is Finnish.  The more time passes, the more doubts arise:
"I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road.  In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive." p.77
This feeling of uncertainty pervades the novel until its climax; when we discover the truth, it is as shattering to the reader as it is to poor Sampo...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  New Finnish Grammar is a wonderful book, and easily finished up on my shortlist.  If you're not as interested in linguistics as I am (and that's a distinct possibility!), I can see how the constant language analysis might grate.  For me though, this book was an intelligent, thought-provoking study of the importance of language and culture to our mental well-being.  I wouldn't have minded at all if it had taken out the main prize :)

And that's it!  Our trip to Helsinki means that the journey has finally come to an end, albeit a rather belated one.  I've thoroughly enjoyed my trip around the world, courtesy of the IFFP, but now it's back to the daily grind...

...of reviewing more translated fiction :)