The title is odd, the cover is grey and the author is a besuited Eurocrat. But beneath these unflamboyant exteriors lie a colourful story. It has taken 10 years, the dedication of a small UK publisher and a perfect-pitch translation to deliver Diego Marani's first novel in English. When it came out in Italian, reviewers called it a masterpiece and it won several prizes. Since then Marani has written five more novels and become a Euro-celebrity for inventing a mock language called "Europanto" – a tossed salad of every European language without rules or grammar.
New Finnish Grammar is definitely not a textbook. It's a beautifully written, intelligent novel which does, however, track the (notoriously difficult) language and history of the Finns. As a professional linguist, Marani was fascinated by Finnish and by the myth-building of a young nation-state.
The story emerges from the turmoil of the Second World War. In 1943 a military doctor, Petri Friari, is working on a German hospital ship moored in Trieste harbour. A young soldier is brought to him, so badly wounded that he has no idea who he is. All he has is a jacket with the Finnish name "SAMPO KARJALAINEN" sewn into it. This leads Petri – originally from Finland – to believe the man is also Finnish; so he helps "Sampo" to rediscover his language and his fatherland.
The men are both exiles in different ways, both struggling with who they are. An archetypal identity drama unfolds as Sampo gradually learns to talk and walk again. Language is central to the narrative. Without it, we have no roots and no memory. As Sampo travels through war-torn Europe "back home" to Finland, he has small breakthroughs: "Urgent as a desire to vomit, I felt the sudden need to speak."
In Finland, Sampo lodges with the ebullient Pastor Koskela, who believes that learning their myths and legends will anchor the shattered man. He is encouraged to fall in love: "to switch off his brain and follow his heart". A warm-hearted nurse does her best, but fails. Still Sampo doesn't feel at home: "I had a distinct suspicion 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."
Who is Sampo? This identity thriller delivers plot, bodies and clues – as well as poetic musings on national and individual identity. Marani is obsessed by language and how it defines us. Here's a gifted European linguist also gifted at describing who we are as Europeans.