New Finnish Grammar

New Finnish Grammar
Diego Marani
Dedalus, 187pp, £9.99

One of the most mysterious and disconcerting episodes in The Prelude concerns Wordsworth's encounter in London with a blind beggar "who, with upright face,/Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest/Wearing a written paper, to explain/His story, whence he came, and who he was". The sight, the poet tells us, sent his mind spinning, "As with the might of waters", for it seemed an "apt type . . . of the utmost we can know,/Both of ourselves and of the universe". Can this be true? Is the blind beggar, his name written on his chest but unable to read it, an emblem of ourselves?

The idea is shocking to most of us, who believe that we are transparent to ourselves and that the world is, to a certain extent, open to our understanding.

Diego Marani's remarkable novel sets out to explore these questions. One night in Trieste in September 1943, just after Italy has surrendered to the Allies, a wounded soldier is found on the quay. He is brought on board a German hospital ship anchored in the harbour, where a doctor named Petri Friari attends to him. The man has no memory and no language, but from his jacket and the initials embroidered on his handkerchief, the doctor, a native of Finland, deduces that he is a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen.

The doctor, whose troubled relations with his country are made worse by mingled guilt and anger at the way his father was treated by his countrymen, sees the wounded soldier as a kind of alter ego and determines to restore his consciousness of his native tongue, and so make him aware again of his past. Friari has Sampo repatriated to Finland, an Axis ally, with a letter of introduction to a doctor there.

Yet, despite the best efforts of the doctor, a pastor Sampo encounters who takes him under his wing and a Red Cross nurse who falls in love with him, as well as his own strenuous attempts to master the structures of Finnish and force himself to rediscover its roots in his memory, the man seems incapable of doing so. As he tramps the streets of Helsinki, trying to trace his relations, he tries to make himself believe that his language and the details of his personal past are slowly returning to him. Deep down, however, it seems he does not believe it. One day he does track down a family that has lost its son, the sailor Sampo Karjalainen, in the fighting, but there is no spark of recognition on his part, or theirs. Clearly he is another Sampo, son of another set of parents.

Marani creates a believable Finland in the last years of the Second World War, with Russia, the enemy from the east, massing on its borders and the German ally rushing to defend it in the face of impending defeat. He also draws us deep into Finnish culture, with its antecedents in shamanism and the myths of the Kalevala - the Finnish national epic - and its thin veneer of Lutheranism. Yet he does this only in order to pursue his primary task, of raising questions about how we relate to ourselves, our pasts and our native language. Is there a future for us if we have no past? How can a created past ever be a substitute for the real thing? "Since language is our mother," Dr Friari advises at the start of the novel, "try and find yourself a woman. It is from a woman that we come into the world, from a mother that we learn to speak."

Sampo's resistance to the advances of the nurse, drawn to him partly because of his helplessness, stems from a darkness inside him he cannot understand, but which we sense has to do with his origins: perhaps he did not spring from a Finnish mother and Finnish is not his native tongue. Perhaps, it begins to dawn on us, Sampo has been the victim of a great mistake, and an identity that is not his has been thrust upon him.

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. Judith Landry is to be congratulated on her seamless translation from the Italian, and Dedalus for introducing English readers to a fascinating writer. l

Gabriel Josipovici's most recent book is “What Ever Happened to Modernism?" (Yale University Press, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue