Der Jazz des Linguas

Matthew Reynolds

  • New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry
    Dedalus, 187 pp, £9.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 1 903517 94 9
  • The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry
    Dedalus, 166 pp, £9.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 907650 56 7
  • Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot by Diego Marani
    Dedalus, 138 pp, £6.99, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 907650 59 8

Diego Marani works in the Directorate-General for Interpretation at the European Commission, and he writes fiction full of ideas prompted by his day job. New Finnish Grammar, translated last year, is heavy with fear at what it might be like to lose language altogether. The hero is discovered in Trieste in 1943, with no words, memory or identity. He is thought (mistakenly) to be a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen, and is sent to Finland to try to recover his former self. The weather is freezing and the grammar confounding. The novel is an amalgam of conversations half understood, relationships thwarted and lonely bus journeys.

But it also gives a glimpse of what seems to have been a much happier experience of language. Between tales from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, and glugs of Koskenkorva vodka, Pastor Koskela, a Lutheran and a nationalist, boasts of the spontaneity of the Finnish tongue: ‘The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was bring them together and bend them to our needs.’ This togetherness of world and words is the opposite of Sampo Karjalainen’s predicament: it is what he longs to achieve. And yet the charismatic Pastor Koskela is an ambiguous figure, a drug addict who ends up sacrificing himself on the Russian Front.

One can sense the Eurocrat Marani brooding over a policy conundrum to do with language and identity. Most Europeans can speak more than one language, yet many of us still feel that our identity belongs to a single language which defines existence as it really is. Great subtleties and beauties of expression arise from this feeling, and literatures depend on it; but nation-states also harness it and turn it to their disciplinary and separatist ends. From the point of view of the Directorate-General for Interpretation, which is charged with making meaning shuttle between the 23 official languages of the European Union, our attachment to our mother tongues must seem a major pain. I have heard Marani stand up at a conference where the decline of Romany was being deplored and coolly ask whether it actually is a cause for lamentation when a language drops out of use. If it’s no longer really needed for communication, why bother keeping it alive?

Marani included his own dialect in this proscription, but he can’t have felt entirely happy about it. He has written several volumes of reminiscence about growing up among the streets of Tresigallo, in Emilia-Romagna, a town that was reconstructed around 1930 in the de Chirico aesthetic beloved of Italian fascists. This problematic environment doesn’t stop Marani sounding just like Pastor Koskela: the ‘odours of the countryside’ and the ‘light of certain evenings’, he says, cannot be captured by any language other than Tresigallese.

One strand of Marani’s fiction pursues the dream of a language that’s a mother tongue for everyone. L’Interprete (published in 2004, but not yet put into English) tells the story of a simultaneous interpreter, fluent in 15 languages, who finds emerging uncannily from within him an idiom that seems to unite them all. Marani’s feeling about Tresigallese here expands, beyond Koskela’s nationalist myth of Finnish, into what is frankly the language of Eden and therefore of the universe. As a linguist, Marani knows his dream is a chimera. And so, in this novel, he adopts the modes of fantasy writing. His Interpreter exerts a numinous influence over everyone he meets: women find him irresistible; deaths happen in his wake. These are all ways of sustaining the fiction under the pressure of disbelief, but in the end it cracks. The Interpreter turns out not to have discovered the language of Eden but only that of striped dolphins, one of many, mutually incomprehensible submarine tongues. He ends up leading aquatic acrobatics in a dolphinarium in Tallinn, a lesser, gloomier Dr Dolittle.

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