Sunday, 19 June 2011

Review - New Finnish Grammar

The fact that I am reviewing this book at all is the result of one of the nicest publishing stories of the year so far. A book in translation, by an Italian writer totally unknown in the UK, published by a small, obscure company, with an incredibly uninformative title and a frankly dull cover, we have had more requests for it in the past few weeks than almost any other title, including The Tiger's Wife, we sold 19 copies of it in three days, it has now entirely sold out its first print run and we have 50 more on order. We'll sell them all.

And this is all because of one review that appeared in the Guardian a few weeks ago. Reviews do tend to generate sales, even when they're quite mixed, (I have come to dread the customer approaching the desk clutching a pathetic little bit of newspaper clipping in their hand, because invariably the book they want will be not yet released, or only available in America, or published in 1976 - damn you, newspaper reviewers, damn your eyes) but for the kind of review that this book got, most writers would willingly sell at least one of their kidneys and possibly their spleen.
I can't remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word "genius" of its author.
I mean. Damn.

So obviously I had to buy New Finnish Grammar to see if it really was that good. And here's the thing - it really is. I'm nearly embarrassed about how much I was bowled over by this book. In terms of style, the way it's written, it's flawless. It's so well written that it doesn't even need to bother with the fancy little fiddles or weird convoluted images that a lot of writers use to show how incredibly 'intelligent' and 'erudite' they are (these words can be substituted with 'infuriating' and 'snobbish', or other, ruder adjectives of your choice). New Finnish Grammar just tells the story it wants to, clearly and beautifully, without being a show-off about it at all. It does what it does, and what it does is astonishing.

It's the story of a man discovered in the port of Trieste in 1943, unconscious and almost beaten to death. The name on his coat's tag is Finnish, and because of this the doctor on board the hospital ship he's taken to, an exiled Finn himself, becomes nearly obsessive about the importance of this man recovering his memory and identity. He teaches him the Finnish language, and ultimately sends him back to Finland hoping that he'll rediscover his roots.

Words in this book become physical things, with meanings that are part of the particular time or place they are spoken, or the person they are spoken by. The main character learns the Finnish language as much by his relationships he forms with other people as by the tables of grammar that he painstakingly writes out, and the words he learns are the way in which he rebuilds his world and himself. There are so many beautiful ideas going on in New Finnish Grammar, about language and identity and nationality, but all the same it doesn't push any of them on you. You're free to notice them, or not, and think about them or not, and the book works equally well either way. It's just lovely, every sentence of it, but it doesn't want to bother you - it's very polite, this book, it never grabs or shoves or overstays its welcome. If you expect fireworks, plot-wise, you'll be missing the point - the joy of New Finnish Grammar is its attention to detail, its descriptions of streets and clouds and trees. It's incredible, for a book written about World War II, how peaceful it is to read.

This book is beautiful. It's absolutely wonderful, and it's very difficult to explain it in a way that does it justice. Just - read it, seriously, read it, and I hope you'll see what I mean.

5 stars.

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