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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A la recherche du temps perdu
The book begins in 1943. Finland was fighting Russia as an ally of Germany, but the Germans were on the retreat and the traditional Russian enemy is poised for, and eventually launches, a new invasion of Finland.

The central character is called Sampo Karjalainen. He is found clubbed unconscious by some assailant in Trieste. That Finish name - drawn from...
Published 22 months ago by Ralph Blumenau

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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Balance all wrong...
This is a curate's egg of a book. Some aspects are beautifully done and highly poised. Other parts are highly unsuccessful.

The main character's sense of total loss - stemming from being unable to recall who he is, or what has happened in his life - is heartfelt and impactive. The decision to send him for recuperation in Helsinki is logical, and the reader...
Published on 7 Sep 2011 by bloodsimple


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A la recherche du temps perdu, 31 Aug 2012
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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The book begins in 1943. Finland was fighting Russia as an ally of Germany, but the Germans were on the retreat and the traditional Russian enemy is poised for, and eventually launches, a new invasion of Finland.

The central character is called Sampo Karjalainen. He is found clubbed unconscious by some assailant in Trieste. That Finish name - drawn from Finnish mythology - is sewn into his seaman's jacket, but he has lost all memory of who he is and all understanding and use of language. In the Trieste military hospital he is found by the Finnish born Dr Petri Friari, who is serving in the German army: he had fled his country in 1918, after his father had been killed as a suspected communist during the Finnish civil war which was won by the Whites. Though an exile from his country, Friari still feels a profound love and identity with it. He feels an obligation to help Sampo to recover the Finnish language and begins to teach him; he has not got very far when he arranges for Sampo to be sent, early in 1944, to a military hospital in Helsinki, where, surrounded by other Finns, he hopes Sampo's recovery of his language will be speeded up. In that hospital a caring army chaplain, Pastor Olof Koskela, takes on the job of teaching Sampo. The hospital is Sampo's base, but he can spend as much of his time outside it as he likes (one of the many things in the book which seems unlikely).

We understand from the Preface that Sampo has died when Dr Petri himself goes back to Helsinki in 1946 and finds a manuscript written by Sampo. Its transcription, filled out with Petri's occasional emendations and comments, makes up most of the book.

One has to suspend one's disbelief that someone who had painfully had to learn Finnish from scratch and never really feels at home in it should have written such an eloquent and poetic book, even given Petri's emendations; that he could have understood, let alone reproduced, Koskela's sophisticated ideas. These are, for example, about the differences between the Russians and the Finns or between Russian Orthodox and Finnish Lutheran theology. Then there are his allusions to Finnish mythology, as if Sampo were familiar with them. Koskela is increasingly obsessed - to the point of mania - with the Finnish epic, the Kalevala; its grim stories shape the Pastor's view of life, and he sees parallels between them and the situation in which Finland or the Pastor or Sampo find themselves; but I have to say that for the most part they eluded me.

Koskela also has a deep love for the Finnish language, and he tells Sampo about its lyricism and subtlety and a character unlike that of any other language and in which, for example, nouns have 15 cases according to context and in which the word for the Bible (Raamattu) also means Grammar. At one point, when Sampo has already accumulated a large vocabulary, he still compares the language to "an enemy who was attacking me from behind" and which each day surprised him on a different front, while he was trying to keep his mind clear of its "carpet-bombing."

His difficulties with the language notwithstanding, there are in Sampo's account the most striking descriptions of what he feels - despair at times, because the language has not yet become his own and he feels isolated and haunted by not being able to remember who he really is; the joy when he can communicate without words, as during a tremendous scene during a bombardment by the Russian air force; ambivalence when tempted into intimacy with a wise young woman who, so we are given to understand, might have given him some identity if he had accepted her love and her help; finally his utter devastation when, in a coup de théātre, even the one thing he thought he did know about himself, and which had given his recent life some presumed meaning, terrifyingly turned out to have no foundation.

It looks as if the book had been written by a Finnish patriot, but the author, steeped as he is in the Finnish language, culture, landscape, climate and history, is actually an Italian. There are many beautifully written scenes, and they have been superbly translated from the author's Italian into English by Judith Landry. Though, as I said, I had from time to time had to suspend my disbelief and though I could not always follow the rumination of Koskela, I found this an utterly compelling story.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book will stay with you for a long time, 21 Jun 2011
This review is from: New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011) (Paperback)
This book won't teach you actual Finnish grammar. If you know that, then all is fine. Instead, New Finnish Grammar takes you into a world where language, words and lack thereof means everything. I hope no review of this book will talk much about the actual story - the story may seem simple, but following it as it develops and unfolds is what gives the book it's character. Sometimes, it is as if the main character's destiny is determined by his previous choices and him refusing to make new decisions. This really adds to the suspense and is probably one of the reasons why I finished the book in two sittings!

Language may be important in the book, in the actual story, but it is also crucial for the book itself. Marani's skilled in creating a language that feels fresh and new - somehow it develops with the characters. Adding to that, Judith Landry's translation is just beautiful.

With 187 pages and a story that is relatively easy to follow, this book is approachable and could be treated as a quick and simple read. At least that's what I thought until I had finished it - now I find my mind returning to it to discover new gems and appreciate new parts of the story. Marani has created a novel that expands, not only as you read it but after as well.

Even if you found this book looking for an actual grammar book, I recommend it. It might not teach you Finnish, but it can surely awaken your fascination for language and how is affects us all. I look forward to finding out what else Marani has written.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Balance all wrong..., 7 Sep 2011
By 
bloodsimple (nottingham, uk) - See all my reviews
This review is from: New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011) (Paperback)
This is a curate's egg of a book. Some aspects are beautifully done and highly poised. Other parts are highly unsuccessful.

The main character's sense of total loss - stemming from being unable to recall who he is, or what has happened in his life - is heartfelt and impactive. The decision to send him for recuperation in Helsinki is logical, and the reader expects a decent storyline as a result.

However, problems then emerge. Too many conversations are not conversations at all - they are awkward means of imparting pseudo-academic information to the reader. As a result everything quickly feels stilted, as if any sense of a realistic or emotional story has been forgotten, so that the author can expand endlessly on the Finnish language. Less would be much more, here. The main character disappears into the `research', emotion is sacrificed and never returns. This book should be poignant and moving, but it is not.

Ultimately, this strikes the reader as an exercise in explaining the origins and importance of language to the Finnish people. The story, characters, narrative arc and other basics of fiction are simply shoehorned into the exercise. In short, a book by an academic about an academic subject, forced into a fiction structure. As such, it suffers for it. For example, the priest is going slowly mad, but he is going mad in a particular way - one where he routinely provides five-page explanations of a Finnish myth and how it shaped the language. Because, you know, that's how madness usually manifests itself, isn't it? Some of this would be acceptable or even welcome; lots of it just seems false and laboured.

Overall, too much academic notes and not enough fiction; the balance is all wrong and both aspects suffer as a consequence.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars New Finnish Grammar, 17 Jun 2013
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This wasn't what I expected it to be, I'm afraid. I'd read a review which described this and another novel by the same author as "genius Helsinki mysteries with a touch of The Killing." This suggested some sort of crime novel to me. This it certainly isn't.
The central character is a man found in Italy towards the end of WW2 with a major head injury who has no memories and has lost any language skills. A doctor treating him comes to the conclusion that he is Finnish, starts to teach him the language and sends him to Finland. The novel explores what happens to your personality when you have no memory of your childhood, family etc. The "return" to Finland does not help the character to discover his identity at all, unsurprisingly as revealed in the denouement. There is considerable discussion of ancient Finnish mythology and of the very complex nature of Finnish grammar.
There are some useful insights into and observations of human personality and culture and the nature of our relationships with others. But, overall, I found reading this quite hard going and I wasn't sure that it really repaid the effort. I was never quite convinced by the central character and the situations he found himself in, I'm afraid.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Piecing together the past, 4 Sep 2012
By 
Xenophon (London, England) - See all my reviews
One could say that 20th century literature is more preoccupied with memory and the individual dealing with the past more than any other period of world history. It is a theme that has continued up untl the end of the last and beginning of this century. Notable texts of this later period include those by Julian Barnes, W. G. Sebald and now Diego Marani's 'New Finnish Grammar.'

The plot is a simple one: a man wakes up in Trieste during he 2nd World War not remembering who or where he is and, most importantly, no knowledge of any languages. As the novel progresses we follow him on his search to figure out who he is, who he was, and where he should be.

Through this plot, Marani is able to explore issues of identity, language and the self with the world of war as a backdrop. These issues are most powerfully portrayed in the first thirty pages of the novel, some of the most outstanding to have been written in recent years. The opening passages recall the opening scenes of Proust's 'A la recherché du temps perdu' where our protagonist also wakes up and struggles to place himself in time and space and give the reader a real insight into what life with language and personal memory of one's past would be like.

'New Finnish Grammar' is a lucid, adventurous novel which questions our perception of self-identity in a mature and innovative manner.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Italian novel in English about the Finnish language.Vortex!, 25 Aug 2012
By 
Philoctetes (England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011) (Paperback)
I have a sneaking dark suspicion that New Finnish Grammar is a better book than my swift traversal has permitted. A story of a man both amnesiac and deprived of language who is assumed to be a Finn and taught to communicate in Finnish - a famously difficult language - ought to be fascinating and thought-provoking on many levels. The wartime setting ought to supply plenty of drama. Overall, I found the story rather dry and coming to the end I wished it could have expanded with journeys into Finland's forests and so forth. There are frequent references to the Kalevala, an effervescent and profoundly musical work of literature, much more engaging in its fantastic myths than this narrative of bewilderment and isolation which does at least make some poetic comments on the nature of the Finnish language but doesn't even demonstrate one example of the language's complexity. Perhaps there are parallels to be drawn between the way meaning is contained in Finnish grammar and the protagonist's peregrinations around Helsinki. You read it and say...
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New Finnish Grammar-Diego Marani Translated by Judith Landry, 23 Mar 2012
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This review is from: New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011) (Paperback)
Memory is an individuals ability to evoke or revive specific events from their lives. Memory is thought to divide into 3 main subdivisions, these being Working memory (prefrontal Cortex), Long term memory (hippocampus) and Skill memory (Cerebellum). These all play their part in contributing to our identity, by the building of new memories and the retaining of past ones, also by providing us with scenarios that allows us to know how to behave socially. Making memory an important factor in building an individuals identity.

In Diego Marani's book New Finnish Grammar, a man is found on a Trieste quay, unconscious with obvious head wounds. When he regains consciousness he appears to have no memory, or language, to all intents and purposes he has become an empty vessel devoid of all that we would perceive necessary for an individuals identity, in fact the only thing that marks him in any way is a name-tag inside the seaman's jacket he's wearing, with the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen and a handkerchief embroidered S.K.

*

He is taken to a hospital ship that is anchored nearby & administered to by a doctor who's origins are Finnish and it is he who recognises the name as that of a native of his homeland. The doctor (Petri Friari) has a troubled past with his native land due to the way his parents, particularly the way his father, was hounded by his fellow countrymen, then put to death as a communist traitor. All of this feeds into the way the doctor proceeds to help the man now known as Sampo, whom he sees as a version of himself & he takes on the task of restoring Sampo to the man he believes he is, by reacquainting him with what he perceives is his native tongue and then by repatriating him to Finland, with a letter introducing him to a fellow doctor.

Despite being in what he thinks could be his homeland, he remains rootless, almost a ghost figure haunting the society he happens to be with, incapable of forming a relationship with either himself or others, still trying to master a language which could provide the key to unlock the identity he feels is trapped within.

New Finnish Grammar demonstrates that not only is memory an important building block to identity but so is language, that it's purpose is not merely as an instrument for communication, but also relates to the behavioural codes and cultural values that go to construct ones identity and that not only does language define the characteristics of a specific group or community, it is also the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others.

All of this is played out against the backdrop of the last remaining years of the second world war, with Finland caught between Russia and Germany and is told via a manuscript Friari finds in 1946 which is

"written in a spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs, exercises in Finnish grammar & bits cut out of the Helsinki telephone directory".

This Friari interrupts with his own commentary adding explanations, adding his own reasoning/opinion on a particular event or remark. By using this technique Marani manages to create a tale of two men both at odds with their image of themselves, with their identity as individuals. He also asks questions such as to what extent learning/ re-learning a language affects who you are, like some blank canvas can you become a totally different individual or would you find yourself lost, torn from the roots of all that you were and what it is that binds all that a person is & within that binding are we all empty vessels, foundering in search of the something, someone that could save us.

This is a beautifully written book, that needs time to be absorbed & Judith Landry's translation of it, allowed me the opportunity to do that, to which she earns my heartfelt thanks.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Finnish Grammar, 13 July 2012
This review is from: New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011) (Paperback)
This book is beautifully written.
Having had to learn the finish language at school ( and struggling especially with the grammar) , the book itself made me smile many times. I especially enjoyed the description of the language , the theory of grammar and the description the finish myths and epics. To myself as a Swedish speaking Finn I associated well to the book and it's contents- I have always heard about the hard times of the war and the heroism, and I feel that the book describes it well
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Overrated, 1 Mar 2013
This review is from: New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011) (Paperback)
Reads like research notes, rather than a satisfying novel. I gave up half way through, and that was being generous with my time. Gushing review in The Guardian is just wrong - this is far from a work of 'genius'. Life's too short to read poorly written, portentous ramblings in translation or otherwise.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New Finnish Grammar, 25 July 2012
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I found Diego Marani's novel a compelling read. It takes the reader on a tantalizing trail from Trieste to Helsinki through the thoughts and inner reflections of a WWII victim who is desperately searching to uncover his identity and past. Having lost his facility for language after some kind of neurological injury, Sampo struggles to get to grips with the complexities of Finnish grammar. The story unfolds through an ingenuous blend of Finnish mythology and wartime reality. I soon became engrossed in following Sampo's footsteps on his long, troubled walks through the streets of Helsinki.
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New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011)
New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus Europe 2011) by Diego Marani (Paperback - 11 May 2011)
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