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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

New Finnish Grammar

Diego Marani

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To purchase New Finnish Grammar

Title: New Finnish Grammar
Author: Diego Marani
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: New Finnish Grammar - US
New Finnish Grammar - UK
New Finnish Grammar - Canada
New Finnish Grammar - India
Nouvelle grammaire finnoise - France
Neue finnische Grammatik - Deutschland
Nuova grammatica finlandese - Italia
Memoria callada - España
  • Italian title: Nuova grammatica finlandese
  • Translated by Judith Landry

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sad but well-crafted meditation on language, memory, and identity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 15/12/2012 Helen Elliott
Financial Times . 17/6/2011 Adrian Turpin
The Guardian A+ 26/5/2011 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 17/6/2011 Rosie Goldsmith
Independent on Sunday . 28/8/2011 Brandon Robshaw
London Rev. of Books . 8/11/2012 Matthew Reynolds
New Statesman . 27/6/2011 Gabriel Josipovici
TLS . 24/6/2011 Oliver Ready

  From the Reviews:
  • "New Finnish Grammar is exhilarating and exhausting. The ideas provoke but the presentation is that particular specialisation, Italian intellectual. (Reviewer alert: I find Umberto Eco unbearable.) This book is not recommended holiday reading in the heat despite the frozen country setting because it requires concentration, memory, reflection. But here is the beautiful point: if you do read it you will never again be cavalier about having and using a language." - Helen Elliott, The Australian

  • "In some hands this would be the set-up for a mystery; here it becomes the basis for a subtle exploration of how language shapes our sense of ourselves and the world, as "Sampo" tries to find his tongue in war-stricken Helsinki. A fascinating if sometimes implausible act of cultural ventriloquism" - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "I can't remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word "genius" of its author." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "New Finnish Grammar is definitely not a textbook. It's a beautifully written, intelligent novel which does, however, track the (notoriously difficult) language and history of the Finns. (...) This identity thriller delivers plot, bodies and clues -- as well as poetic musings on national and individual identity. Marani is obsessed by language and how it defines us." - Rosie Goldsmith, The Independent

  • "One somehow knows that this couldn't have been written by an English writer. It has a thoroughly European sensibility: intellectual, melancholy, mysterious, imbued with a sense of tragedy and history." - Brandon Robshaw, Independent on Sunday

  • "This is a desperately sad book. It takes its place beside Romantic stories of Kaspar Hauser and the Wolf Boy of Aveyron which have haunted the European imagination for two centuries. I doubt that it could have been written without the example of Borges. However, Borges limited his narratives to a few pages. Marani, expanding a Borgesian idea to a novel, seems at times to lose his hold on the reader. Yet what he has produced is still a cut above what passes for serious fiction in this country." - Gabriel Josipovici, New Statesman

  • "(W)e soon forget we are reading an English translation of an Italian novel putatively translated from a sort of Finnish palimpsest. Sheer narrative vim is one reason for this. (...) Perhaps the most satisfying effect created by this use of counterpoint is the unexpected manipulation of the stale theme of identity." - Oliver Ready, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       New Finnish Grammar begins with a Prologue written by Dr.Petri Friari, in which he explains some of the circumstances surrounding the manuscript that makes up the bulk of this novel. Friari is a neurologist who works for the German navy; stationed in Trieste in 1943, he believes a patient of his, found severely beaten up and unable to speak once he begins to recover, is from Finland. Friari is originally from Finland, but is a long-time expatriate, and he taught the patient Finnish -- believing, of course, that he was re-teaching the man his mother tongue. The manuscript Friari finds in 1946 is: "written in a spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish", as the patient never got anywhere complete command of the language; as Friari then also admits in the Prologue, he made what turns out to be a terrible mistake.
       Friari occasionally interrupts the patient's manuscript-narrative, offering commentary or explanation, but for the most part the patient then tells the story of his (attempted) recovery himself. Identified as a Finnish sailor named Sampo Karjalainen, the patient can't identify with that identity -- but he has nothing else to cling to, starting out again without memories or language. Patiently Friari begins to teach him Finnish -- and then, when he is well enough, sends him to Helsinki, imagining also that the environment will help Sampo regain his memory.
       The book contrasts these two characters and their suffering: Friari is tormented by memory, never able to escape his past. It is: "the tithe of pain I pay, each day". Meanwhile, the man known as Sampo can barely hold onto anything -- especially the Finnish language that is supposedly his own:

     Each day meant starting again from scratch. The moment my attention lapsed, the moment I allowed my mind to wander, all the good work would be undone.
       Compelled to find himself -- his identity, his origins, his story -- the patient also loses himself. As one character writes to him, in these terrible times:
Forgetting is the only form of defence left to us; nothing which has been forgotten has the power to harm us any more; yet there you are, mercilessly scrutinising your consciousness in the hopes of digging up a few shreds of memory.
       Marani crafts a fine but sad exploration of the burden of memory -- and of the weight of its absence -- and personal identity, and he cleverly uses language here (in a novel that in an abstract way even gains from the additional translation it has undergone, bringing the point home even more strongly). Finnish -- that unusual, outlier language -- is, of course, ideal for these circumstances -- and Marani plays it to the hilt, too, having, for example, one character explain:
The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self, may indeed no longer recognize it. This does not happen studying other languages, because other languages are merely scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were all around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs.
       They of course never meet the patient's needs (who, with explanations like this, must have wished he'd started over with some -- any ! -- other language ...).
       Friari admits to "wreaking his destruction" when writing about the patient in his Prologue, so there's no surprise where this is all going, but New Finnish Grammar is more than just an individual tragedy, too.
       A fine book, however, and an appealingly creative work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 August 2011

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New Finnish Grammar: Reviews: Other books by Diego Marani under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author and linguist Diego Marani was born in 1959.

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© 2011-2024 the complete review

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