The fine, frayed threads of language and memory

Sat, Aug 6, 2011, 01:00

FICTION: New Finnish GrammarBy Diego Marani Translated by Judith Landry Dedalus, 187pp, £9.99

A SAILOR is found so badly beaten, he is not expected to survive. Yet he does and is fortunate in that his doctor in the Trieste hospital is unusually, given that it is wartime, dedicated to not only healing his physical injuries, he wants to help the patient recover his memory. The man is at a loss, he has not only lost his memory, he has lost his language. The only clue to the seaman’s identity is the name Sampo Karjalainen, which is stamped inside the jacket he is wearing. The doctor, although based in Hamburg and working with the German army, is originally from Finland. Although he had left his native country years earlier, the doctor retains his feelings for that homeland, feelings which are complicated by the fate of his father.

First published in Italy in 2000 and reprinted twice within two months of this, its first English language edition, Diego Marani’s eloquent novel brings together two very troubled narrators; the first, the doctor, is burden by guilt and responsibility, the other, the sailor, is slowly climbing towards a sense of self. Readers of the Hungarian lost master Sandor Marai, particularly of novels such as Embers(1942; English trans 2001) and Esther’s Inheritance(1939, English trans 2008), will be drawn to the gracious pathos.

The doctor emerges as a tragic hero, intent on saving the world but aware he is damned. In the character of the sailor, Marani has created a staggering study of loss and an act of retrieval that is heroic. The doctor believes his patient to be a fellow Finn and begins to teach him their shared language. As time passes, the patient begins to write an account of his experience. His narrative forms the greater part of the novel, while the doctor contributes some powerful asides.

The patient records the process of recovering language. “A rich, deep humus had formed, where words were now taking root and thriving. The linguistic memory which my injury had uprooted from my brain was being born afresh in another part of my mind . . .”

The patient recalls being told by the nurses of his doctor’s care. “The day I came out of the coma, the nurses swore that they had glimpsed a tear on one of his far from tender cheeks. He insisted on taking personal charge of my rehabilitation . . . When he realized that I could not speak, that the injury had destroyed my memory for language and my ability to articulate sounds, he hoped in his heart of hearts that I would die.”

The sailor tells his story in a subdued, almost fatalistic tone, yet also conveys his gratitude and wonder that another person, a stranger, could care so much: “ . . . he swore that he would move heaven and earth to get me back to my own country, to give me the chance to pick up the broken thread of memory”. Many aspects of the man’s plight enable the doctor to confront the deep hurt that has festered in his own memory. The doctor finally tells his story, to a helpless stranger. “I had begun telling him my story. I was convinced that he could not understand me, and I was talking mainly in order to vent my feelings, something I had never been able to do, not even with the sailors in the Hamburg church.” The stranger begins to find language, the Finnish tongue the doctor believes to be his. But the sailor can not recover his memory. He sees Helsinki as an alien place and all he can do is hope to find consolation by listening to the folk tales told to him by an old chaplain who explains: “Finnish is one single, unbroken song. Finnish is a language which should only be sung, that is its true form, its morphology. To speak it is like the prose version of a poem. It is for savages who know nothing of poetry.”

The chaplain is a singular character and his remarks open the mind of the lost man. It is heady stuff. “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 falling snow.” Through this character Marani is able to explore language as an organic compound. Not only is the narrative concerned with one man’s search for the memory and language he has lost, it is also an examination of what language is and what it means to those who speak it. The sailor’s account is extraordinary, if at times, surprisingly sophisticated – given that he is only learning, or rather, re-learning language. He recalls of the chaplain: “I found his words both complicated and intriguing; each day they bound me ever more closely to my new (or old?) identity.”

Life invariably offers chance but the man who has come to be known as Sampo is unable to take them. When he is confronted by the actual relevance of his name, he is devastated. Equally the doctor makes a discovery that plunges him into despair. This is no melodrama, although there are twists and turns aplenty. Marani’s moving novel about the brutal displacement imposed by war and fate achieves consummate emotional intelligence. The sailor is left wondering how on earth he ended up in Trieste in the first place. He never unravels the truth; the doctor does and that is his share of a very human tragedy.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times