Thursday, 25 April 2013

'The Last of the Vostyachs' by Diego Marani (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 15)

I have a thing for languages and linguistics, so I'm always happy to read books where language plays a leading role.  My final read for last year's IFFP Longlist, New Finnish Grammar, definitely fell into that category, meaning that I was especially happy when Diego Marani made it onto the longlist again this year.  The good news didn't end there. The Australian edition of his new book is about be released by Text Publishing, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy :)

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (translated by Judith Landry - from Dedalus Books, my review copy from Text Publishing)
What's it all about?
We begin in Siberia, where Ivan (a local youth) has just been released from a prison camp.  After the death of his father in captivity, he hasn't spoken for years - for he is the last of the Vostyachs, a tribe speaking a language long thought extinct.  One day, he ventures into a village to trade furs - and happens to meet Olga, a Russian linguist who instantly realises what she has in front of her...

She is shortly to head off to an important conference in Helsinki, so she immediately contacts the convenor Professor Aurtova, an old colleague and an expert on Finno-Ugric languages.  Olga has new evidence (Ivan) linking Finnish to native-American languages, and she is burning to present the evidence - and the man - at the conference.  The thing is, this could destroy Aurtova's life's work; and when it comes to matters linguistic, he's not a man to be crossed...

The Last of the Vostyachs is  a book which really shouldn't work.  It's part Tarzan, part linguistics lecture, part pulp fiction, and it's less than two-hundred pages long.  It's a story of language death, academic selfishness, and linguistic and personal relationships - and (naturally) it's a great read :)  Marani is an expert at taking an esoteric subject and making the reader accept it as an important part of the plot, even for those who couldn't imagine anything more painful than pages of arguments about language families.

In parts, it's also a story about nature and civilisation coming into conflict.  Ivan, the wild boy, is plucked from his natural environment and sent off to a big city to be paraded in front of intellectuals at a conference.  Surprisingly though, he does learn to adapt after his initial disasters; it probably helps that Helsinki in winter is pretty much home territory for a man from Siberia...

Olga, the Russian linguist, is an interesting woman, a social scientist who is focused on her life's work, but not so blinded by success that she fails to take Ivan's feelings into account.  In a letter to Professor Aurtova, she looks at the ethics of pursuing remnants of tribes to preserve languages, wondering who really benefits:
" For a moment, I thought that it would be better to leave Ivan Vostyach there where he was, in his own land; that introducing him to people so different from himself would cause him suffering, make him feel even more alone." p.30 (Text Publishing, 2013)

"All in all, it probably doesn't matter if he carries on living among the Nganasan and forgets his Vostyach.  One peaceful human life is surely more important than the survival of the lateral affricative with labiovelar overlay." (p.32)
Does the survival of the lateral affricative with labiovelar overlay really matter that much?

The main character, however, is Professor Aurtova, a sociopathic user who will go to any lengths, sexual or violent, to get his way.  He  sees languages as invading forces and wishes to defend the purity of the Finno-Ugric family group, to the death, if necessary.  Towards the end of the book, he gives an extraordinary speech at the conference, a bizarre, racist rant about linguistic purity:
"In the world of mass culture, where the weaker languages are threatened by a new linguistic colonialism which stifles minority cultures, only ignorance can protect us from extinction.  My call to the new generations, here as in the former Soviet republics of Finnish stock, is therefore this: cherish ignorance, do not study the language of the foreigner, but force him to learn your own!" (p.164)
Erm... let's move on, shall we?

The Last of the Vostyachs is a very different book to New Finnish Grammar.  It's a lot more of a page-turner (with some farcical humour), and it lacks a little of the subtlety of Marani's previous novel in English.  Nevertheless, it's a great read, and it manages to come up with a surprising ending which turns the idea of language death on its head.  What else can I say?  More Marani translations, please :)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Although I enjoyed it, I'd have to say no - it's one which will finish just outside my top six.  A lighter book than New Finnish Grammar, it's still well worth reading, but I don't think it was up there with the top few books this year.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
The panel obviously agreed with me.  A great read, but perhaps with not enough depth in a very strong year.  Having said that, there's at least one book on the shortlist that this one should have dislodged...

One more stop to make on our IFFP travels, and (luckily enough) my virtual Hungarian visa has just arrived.  It's time to head off to the woods...