New Finnish Grammar

New Finnish Grammar by Diego MaraniAuthor: Diego Marani (Translated by Judith Landry)
Publisher: Dedalus (2011)
Number of Pages: 187
How long it took me to read: 6 hours
Where I bought this book: Hodges Figgis, Dublin
ISBN: 978-1903517949

Like a Moth to a Flame

A glowing review in the prestigious Irish Times newspaper by the Literary Editor, Eileen Battersby caught my attention. Battersby, author of Ordinary Dogs, is a reputable literary reviewer whose recommendations consistently deliver.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “After all, the past is in fact the only wound which always heals—indeed, it does so on its own, without any help from us. Is this compulsion to seek out traces of your past self really so strong? Would it not be more helpful to work patiently at filling in real time—that time which is left to you…” (p.117)

4. “My words betrayed my outsider status: my very voice gave off sounds that did not ring true, like a cracked glass. The language did not flow with ease; I had to construct each word carefully before pronouncing it, laboriously seeking the right amount of breath, the correct pressure of the lips, sounding out my palate with my tongue in search of the only point which could produce the sound I was looking for and then turning it into the right case before actually delivering it up.” (p.134)

3. “But one day, quite unexpectedly, words—set on their course long before I could read them—reached me, and killed me. Of all the types of cruelty that the person who loves us may inflict upon us, even without meaning to, this is the worst.” (p.147)

2. “Of each lost love, it is the body that we mourn and, could we but keep it, even lifeless, even mute, but intact, we would make do with that. For bodies we are ready to build pyramids, and even after a hundred years a man is not dead until his body has been found. We refer to him as missing, we imagine him dragging out some kind of existence in a distant, hostile land, clinging grimly on to life, desperate to come home.” (p.139)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Establishing a relationship, that’s what we’re talking about: agreeing to move towards the other without taking possession of them, without making them conform to what we expect of them. That’s what I’d like to do with you. Only with you could such a relationship be possible—for the simple reason that there is nothing I can steal from you. When two people meet, they immediately want to ‘declare’ their past…. But that’s not the right way to go about things; it’s simply a rather presumptuous way of claiming a right to the other person’s past by scraping together memories which are not our own. You yourself have no past, so you have no memory to put at anyone’s disposal.” (p.139)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: Raamattu [Finnish]

Definition (Source: Google Translate): Bible
Synonyms: grammar
Origins: Finnish
As in: “In Finnish the word for Bible is Raamattu, that is, Grammar. Life is a set of rules.” (p.125)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Both the title and the stark grey book-cover image of Lake Keitele are off-putting and mask a beguiling, elegiac story of loss and longing. Here is a man haunted by his ignorance of his past. Mistakenly relocated to Finland after the war, he struggles to learn the language and never manages to integrate. ‘…as though deep down some buried identity was refusing to be wiped out…’ (p.59) It makes me sad to think of so many of my compatriots, including members of my extended family, who left their homeland in Ireland for economic reasons, never to return. To what extent is our sense of belonging linked to our sense of place?”

“Tales of Finnish mythology are interwoven through this story: there are lots of similarities between the Irish mythological superhuman figure, Cuchulain, and the Finnish, Väinämöinen. Was our ancient forefathers’ need to invent towering, all-powerful, all-knowing leaders/minders, based on a need for God? Maybe. I think that ancient, isolated and vulnerable communities probably longed to feel that they were not alone. There are moments when we all feel this need. I certainly feel it myself when I’m not in control of my life: illness, concern for a loved one, loss of a job or other unexpected disaster, brings on a wish for some all-powerful Fixer or at the very least, inspiration to help me cope. But appealing to a Deity only at times of crisis seems, somehow, selfish and wrong and stops me short. I’m not a religious person, but I do understand the comfort which can be found from belief in a higher power and the sense that we are not truly alone.

“I recently spent some days in a lovely, but very isolated, coastguard station in the West of Ireland. Access was up a narrow, country lane and across two fields with no public lighting. There were stunning views across the Bay, onto the Atlantic Ocean. My two sisters and I were the only occupants and despite our efforts to cheer the place up by lighting the fire and placing candles in the windows, we each of us felt a presence of past spirits during the night. I’m sorry to say that we weren’t quite ready to deal with this, and left a day earlier than planned. Of course, you might say that it’s the living, and not past spirits, we should fear!

“Is it more difficult to be physically alone, in an isolated place, or to be without a friend in a crowded city? In a world of almost total connectivity, we are never far from the Twitter-sphere. Although I’m not on Facebook, I am blessed with real friends and a large family. Fortunately, I also enjoy my own company and seek opportunities to be alone. I have learned that where we are comfortable and content within ourselves, we are open to others and will make connections more easily. As a reader, however, I’m never alone when I have the company of a good book.”

“Finland, like Ireland and too many other countries, has had more than its share of wars. Territoriality and greed for land and resources has torn communities apart. This heartbreaking story of (at least) two lives destroyed, illustrates so well the futility and waste of war. I’m writing this note as reports reach us of 2,000 Syrians per day fleeing the bombardment in their country; they cross the borders to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey under cover of darkness, with just the clothes they’re wearing. When can they return and will their homes still be there for them? My generation believed that the horror of the genocides in WWII would lead to new, civilized ways for conflict resolution. Instead, we’ve had Vietnam, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq…”

“This story has been described as “…a subtle exploration of how language shapes our sense of ourselves…” (Adrian Turpin in The Financial Times, UK Edition, June 17, 2011) During a recent sojourn in Paris, trying to learn the language, I too experienced that struggle to find the right words, with the right syntax and grammar in attempting to communicate. This led to some amusing and even embarrassing situations—such as stating that I was pregnant when I meant I was full which, given my state of maturity, would have been repeating the miracle of John the Baptist’s mother! On another occasion, in the South, when asking for directions to the train station, which I knew to be close by, I was surprised to be directed several kilometers out of town. One passer-by even offered to take me in his car. I said thanks, but no thanks, and wondered if he thought I was a complete naîf. I learned later that I had used the wrong article: in asking for la gare (the station) I had mistakenly asked for le Gard (the nearby river Gard, on which resides the world heritage Pont du Gard!).

“Just like our hero, Sampo, my words betrayed my outsider status. Yes, learning a language as a mature, normally articulate, adult can be a very humbling experience! Much as I loved Paris, it was a relief to be home, amongst my own, where words are not always necessary in order to convey meaning!”

Gaye Kelly

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  1. Ciarán Flynn says:

    Hei Gaye, those stories of yours about being full and looking for the “gare” are hilarious! I’ve been in some similar situations here in Finland.. One time I was on the phone and wanted to say that I was at my friend Juho’s place (=”Juhola”), but instead I used the wrong case of course and said “Juhossa” (= inside Juho)… I got a funny reaction from both ends of the phone!
    It’s a very good review you’ve got there, congrats! I think I should give the book a read, especially since I’m in the country and (trying) to learn Finnish (even though the cover does look very off-putting)!

  2. John McNamee says:

    Well done. I enjoyed reading the review. I don’t think I will be reading this book because it is not the kind of book that appeals to me. However, language appeals because of its elasticity, particularly English, where new words can name “things” into existence, we live in language. The English speaking world has a somewhat common culture, which reduces the “loss of sense of place” and language constructs culture. So, I thinking, living and working in Australia maybe a little easier than living and working in France.

  3. clare smyth says:

    Well done Gaye. Will definitely read in the future.

  4. Evelyn Moorkens says:

    Super review, full of feeling and empathy with the author and story. I definitely want to read this book, and read more of Gaye’s reviews

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