New Finnish Grammar, Paperback

New Finnish Grammar Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)




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This book has a really tremendous idea: a man is badly injured; he can't remember who he is, and he has lost his capacity for language. His doctor decides the man is Finnish, because he has a Finnish name embroidered inside his shirt collar. The doctor is passionately Finnish himself, and most of the book is taken up the doctor's lessons in Finnish language and culture. The patient imagines that the words he is learning have resonance somewhere deep within his injured brain. Even though each word and idea is unfamiliar, the man assumes that he is slowly reconnecting to his fundamental identity. It turns out, in the end, that the man was German. He never learns that, but he does finally realize he is probably not Finnish. At that point, however, it's too late: his identity is broken in an unusual and interesting way -- he is entirely convinced that the sounds and feelings of Finnish words are woven into his essential sense of himself, and at the same time aware that those words really just float on the surface of whatever he was, or might still be.It's a great idea, with all sorts of implications for identity theory, language, and translation theory, and it fits with the ongoing fascination with stories of failed memory. It questions one of the common assumptions of identity theory in relation to language -- that the words, phonemes, and grammatical forms we learned as infants are deeply embedded in our nature, in our character. A seminar on structural linguistics could make good use of this book, and so could a seminar on translation theory.The problem is that the author never quite figured out how someone with no language can contemplate the etymology of words or the poetry of myths when he can scarcely understand anything that is being said to him. Throughout the entire book -- all the way up to ten pages from the end -- the narrator is saying things like, "Once again, I did not understand it all, although I could not fail to see that it contained harsh words" -- this after an impassioned and extremely eloquent letter from a woman who had loved him. (p. 173) After a lengthy and detailed exposition of the Finnish epic Karevala, the narrator says simply, "I had at last managed to begin to make some sense" of the myths. (p. 126) The book is full of eloquent, articulate, detailed accounts of national character, history, literature, and language, which we read in full, but which the narrator can't really understand. Somehow, he reconstructs these wonderful speeches by memorizing entire sentences, and by pondering what had only seemed to him to be passionate random sounds.It's such a pity that such a trivial, logical problem of narrative prevents this book from working as it should. It would have been easy, for example, to introduce another character who could hear and transcribe everything in detail, and then have the patient recall what he could of each speech. Oh well. Marani is a translator, and is full of wonderful ideas about language; I may read another of his books in future.

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Firstly, what this book is not. It is not a book of grammar or a text book for anyone learning the Finnish language. It is an exploration of language and identity written by an Italian who as a senior linguist for the European Union in Brussels, and the inventor of the whole new language of Europanto, is probably well placed to comment on how language shapes the different European identities.Set largely during the second World War, the book follows the story of an unknown man discovered with severe head injuries in Trieste in 1943. From his clothing he is assumed to be a sailor and is taken to a German hospital ship moored in the harbour. Rather than dying from his injuries as had been expected he begins to recover, but with total memory loss. His injuries have even deprived him of the very idea of language itself. His case is taken up by the medical officer on the ship, Dr Petri Friairi, exiled from Finland as a result of his father's part in an uprising many years before, and now a naturalised German. Because of the Finnish name 'Sampo Karjalainen' sown into the back of his jacket Dr Friari assumes that he is a Finnish sailor of that name and proceeds to help him relearn what Dr Friari believes to be his native language. Thinking that only by being in familiar surroundings will Sampo have any hope of recovering his memory Dr Friari arranges for him to return to Helsinki. However, it is clear from the very start of the book that Dr Friari has made a crucial error in these assumptions, and a train of events has been set in motion which will lead ultimately to the death of the man known as Sampo Karjalainen.Returning to a war-torn Helsinki suffering frequent bombing raids and full of refugees, Sampo finds himself in a state of limbo as the neurologist to who he has been referred to by Dr Friari is constantly expected but never reappears. Befriended by the hospital chaplain Pastor Koskela he continues his study of Finnish but the hoped for familiarity with his surroundings never appears. Rather he says ' I had a distinct impression 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.'. Eventually the evidence that he is basing his whole existence on a misconception is revealed by a chance encounter and the fate of 'Sampo Karjalainen' is sealed.Much more that just a straightforward narrative the book reflects on the Finnish language itself and on the process of language acquisition. As a non-Finnish speaker and someone who knew nothing about the language before starting the book other than it is not Indo-European, I find some of his writing about the language intriguing: 'In the Finnish sentence the words are grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest to the verb becomes the subject. In European languages the sentence is a straight line; in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.' And as well as language the book reflects on the cultural heritage of the country and the extent to which that defines national identity, and in doing so introduced me to a whole new mythology of which I was unaware: that contained in the Finnish Kalevala.Overall, a thought provoking and memorable read, but one which it would be difficult to appreciate if you had no experience of learning a language or a culture other than the one you were born into. So strongly recommended - but probably not for everyone.

Review by

An injured man is found on a dockside in Trieste - he has no memory of anything, but as he's wearing a Finnish sailor's jacket, he's taken to a Finnish doctor who starts painstakingly reteaching him the language he believes to be his. With the name inside the jacket the only possible clue to who he is, the amnesiac throws himself into his studies in the desperate hope of recovering himself. But while a language has rules, life doesn't. Without memory, personal history or identity, and with a handicapped ability to communicate with other people, what will he be able to rebuild?This book is beautifully written (and translated - fittingly, as the book itself is supposed to be a 'translation' by the doctor of the amnesiac's fragmentary and ungrammatical notes). Since I live in a place where I'm not totally fluent in the local language, I especially enjoyed the passages about the man's struggles with Finnish:<i>That cavity which was my mouth, which seemed so small, would suddenly become immense. It seemed impossible to me that everything should be played out within those fractions of a millimetre, that a segment of muscle, if too tense, should alter a meaning completely, that one puff of air too much, or too little, should be enough to cause me to be mistaken for an Estonian or Ingrian, or indeed break off the thread of meaning entirely.</i>and <i>Sometimes a few letters were enough to tell me all I needed to know about a verb and then a whole line would dance before me, the words opening out one after another, letting the meaning shine through. But often whole sentences remained unclear, clouded by very little words, like so many padlocks obstructing the flow of meaning.<i>Although the author is Italian, the themes are rather Scandinavian - loss, the pain of life, and how humans can ever manage to deal with it. The man's favourite Finnish case is the absessive, "a declension for things we haven't got". But somehow the theme is dealt with lightly, so even though the book is rather sad it is a pleasure to read.I can't resist quoting one more passage (out of the many where I've turned down the pages):<i>Finnish is a solid language, slightly rounded at the sides, with narrow slits for eyes, like the houses in Helsinki, the faces of our people. It is a language whose sounds are sweetish and soft, like the flesh of the perch and trout we cook on summer evenings on the shores of lakes whose depths are covered in red algae, the colour of the hunters' houses and the berries which bead from the bushes in summer. Finland is a cuttlefish bone, a great concave stone within whose sandy womb trees sprout like mould beneath the endless northern light.</i>I am already re-reading this.

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Let down by too much drug-induced pastoral mythological ranting. And also by the ending.

Review by

An excellent novel using language and linguistics as the key to the plot. Some elements a little too simplistic, all loose ends neatly tied in a quickly summaried ending. But an Italian author who uses Finnish grammar and Finnish folklore and history so well deserves much credit.

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