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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last of the Vostyachs

Diego Marani

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To purchase The Last of the Vostyachs

Title: The Last of the Vostyachs
Author: Diego Marani
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Last of the Vostyachs - US
The Last of the Vostyachs - UK
The Last of the Vostyachs - Canada
The Last of the Vostyachs - India
L'ultimo dei vostiachi - Italia
El último vostiaco - España
  • Italian title: L'ultimo dei vostiachi
  • Translated by Judith Landry

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Our Assessment:

A : clever and wonderfully entertaining; very nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 18/5/2013 Matthew Clayfield
The Guardian . 14/8/2012 Nicholas Lezard
London Rev. of Books . 8/11/2012 Matthew Reynolds
Sydney Morning Herald . 18/5/2013 Cathy Peake
TLS A 28/9/2012 Max Liu

  From the Reviews:
  • "Indeed the strength of The Last of the Vostyachs is less Marani's intellectual musings than the manner and momentum with which he moves his characters around at the service of the plot. (...) It is therefore a shame, when one finally pulls the plastic template and triangle-toothed gears away, that the resultant mandala feels slightly less than the sum of its parts, slightly less complex than the process of drawing it had hinted at." - Matthew Clayfield, The Australian

  • "So, we have: 1. An intellectual puzzle. 2. A wild man of nature adrift in a big city. 3. A policier set near the Arctic Circle. (If that alone doesn't make you put down your copies of Fifty Shades of Whatever then I despair. It has that Killingesque atmosphere.) 4. Magic, and a sense of the immensity of the primeval universe. 5. An unmistakable dash of humour, even when your nerves are being shredded. 6. Wolves, and a Siberian tiger, let loose from a zoo. 7. A happy ending against all odds. And 8. All hanging together." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Part murder mystery set in the Arctic, part study of language, part Norse saga -- though spiced with its own modernity, magic and humour -- and part evocation of the Arctic wilderness, Marani's novel shows his extraordinary skills and erudition. He is well served by his translator, Judith Landry, who has produced a novel that appears to have been conceived in English." - Cathy Peake, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "(A) riot of comic unpredictability. (...) The Last of the Vostyachs cleverly explores notions of freedom, possession and imprisonment - erudition keeping pace with a rollicking plot. Marani's sentences are controlled explosions of impressionism, his narrative structure a thematic echo chamber." - Max Liu, 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:

       The Last of the Vostyachs begins with the guards at the Siberian forced labor camp in which long-mute Ivan has grown up deserting their posts and the prisoners finally able to leave it. Ivan had been brought here as a child with his father, and hadn't spoken since his father was murdered there after trying to escape:

It was twenty years since Ivan had uttered a word, twenty years since the language spoken by the oldest tribe of the Proto-Uralic family, the Vostyachs -- cousins of the Samoeyeds, the wild bear-hunters who once lived in the Byrranga Mountains and whom scientists believed to be extinct -- had been heard anywhere in Northern Siberia.
       His background - as a Vostyach and after so many years in the camp -- equips Ivan to survive even in the inhospitable wild once he's free. He largely keeps to himself there; eventually, however, he encounters Olga Pavlovna, a linguist who can hardly believe her ears when she hears him try to communicate, understanding that this represents the missing link in the linguistic theory she's been studying:
They're all there, the consonants which mark the transition between the Finnic languages and the Eskimo-Aleut ones. Even the fricative lateral with the labiovelar appendix ! I haven't finished mapping the phonetic analogies, but will have done so in time for the conference, even if I have to work on my new paper round the clock. So goodbye Samoyedic dialects, hello Vostyach ! If you wanted the Helsinki conference to be a turning point in the study of the Finno-Ugric languages, your wish is granted.
       Unfortunately, the person she addresses (here in a letter) and the only one she shares her find with is Professor Jaarmo Aurtova, for whom giving the closing speech at the XXIst Congress of Finno-Ugric is to be a crowning achievement -- in no small part because he plans to definitively conclude that the: "so-called Eskimo-Aleutian hypothesis has been proved to be baseless" and, triumphally, that: "Finnish is Europe's oldest language !" The last thing Aurtova wants to hear about is the existence of a Vostyach language.
       With the rather too trusting Olga bringing her prize find to Helsinki, Aurtova sets about sabotaging her -- a plan that includes seducing her. Meanwhile, the survival instincts of wild-child Ivan -- who can't bear to hear Russian spoken and seems to feel more in touch with wild (or zoo ...) animals than humans -- kick in all to well when he's set loose in frigid (and hockey-mad) Helsinki. And then there's also Aurtova's annoyed wife, lamenting to her husband: "You've saved whole languages from extinction, but caused the one we spoke between ourselves to die."
       The very different kinds of desperation that motivate Aurtova and Ivan make for a very entertaining and creative comedy of errors, leading both of them elsewhere than they likely ever expected.
       Blinded by his ambition, Aurtova throws all scholarly integrity aside in clinging to the theory he has bet his career on -- making for quite the contrast to idealistic (and hands-on) Olga:
     'Well, statistics tell us that one of the six thousand languages still spoken on this earth die out every two weeks, my dear,' retorted Aurtova, almost gleefully.
     'And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it,' Olga retorted in her turn, stiffening a little and rubbing her sweating hands.
     'Whereas I would say the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we're moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all,' said Aurtova
       Marani twists a great, atmospheric -- alternately frigid and very heated -- story around this in this intellectual, linguistic, and just good old-fashioned-type thriller, culminating in Aurtova going down in flames as he closes what was to be his grand speech-of-a-lifetime with an impassioned, deluded: "Long live Finland ! Long live ignornace !" This -- and many other scenes -- can make you wish for a movie version, but in written form they do nicely too.
       There's linguistic theory (and terminology) woven in throughout the story, but that's just one layer of this nicely structured novel, which works well at all its different levels.
       Great fun, and highly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 February 2013

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The Last of the Vostyachs: 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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© 2013-2022 the complete review

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