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.
The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani’s latest book to be translated into English, isn’t as fantastical as L’Interprete, or as melancholy as New Finnish Grammar. The myth of linguistic origin blurrily put forth by Pastor Koskela is here taken to be true. Marani imagines an ur-language for Finnish and the other Uralic tongues which spread along the northern rim of Eurasia from Finland to the Laptev Sea. The book begins when Ivan, the last speaker of Vostyach, the ur-language, walks free from a Siberian work camp where he has been confined for twenty years. He goes out into the humanless landscape, ‘sinking his feet into the moss’, pressing on ‘through clouds of mosquitoes which settled on his face’. Night comes, a ‘white arctic night’ that ‘wiped away the shadows’. Then, in the dawn, he speaks, and ‘all nature quaked.’ Each animal ‘answered Ivan’s words with its own call’. When Ivan speaks, he can give real names to ‘the black fish hidden in the mud of the arctic lakes’ and to ‘the fleshy mosses which, for just a few summer’s days, purpled the rocks’. This unity of word and world is better realised in the richer phonetic harmonies of the Italian: ‘il nome dei pesci neri nascosti nella melma dei laghi artici, dei muschi carnosi che nel mezzo dell’estate per qualche giorno soltanto colorano di viola le rocce sopra il Tajmyr.’
If Vostyach seems a less convincing idea in English than in Italian it may partly be that cultural predispositions are to blame. Marani’s Vostyachs ‘had found the passage towards another world in the darkness of the forests and had never wanted to turn back’ (‘nel buio delle foreste avevano trovato il passaggio verso un altro mondo e non avevano più voluto tornare indietro’) but Judith Landry’s ‘had found the way out of the dark forests into another world but never the way back’. The hints of Christian mysticism drop away in the English version, whose tone perhaps owes something to our tradition of taking transportation to another world as material for nonsense or children’s writing: Wonderland, Neverland, Narnia.
Marani draws on a history of serious speculation about the language of Eden and its possible avatars in fallen nature. Dante probably looms largest, and of course he too found a way through a dark forest to another world. There he encountered the whole range of possible forms of communication, from the babble of Nimrod, through howls, groans, greetings and songs, to Adam’s account of his lost language, and the noiseless telementation of the angels. Dante’s example as an activist in the field of European languages matters as well. When he decided to write the Commedia in Italian rather than Latin – then the more likely choice – he was plumping for a national over a pan-European identity. His poem wouldn’t be comprehensible to intellectuals across the continent without translation, but it would be closer to the tongues and hearts of Italians. For this reason, he explains in De vulgari eloquentia, he felt that he was choosing the ‘natural’ over the ‘artificial’: this is a source for the view of the vernacular channelled by Pastor Koskela and expanded in Marani’s later novels. But Dante also recognised that literary Italian was something he had to form for himself by drawing from more than a dozen regional dialects. It’s rather like the immanent tongue that Marani’s messianic Interpreter thinks he’s extracting from his own 15 languages.
In the ninth circle of Dante’s hell there is a frozen lake, where traitors are variously implanted or submerged, depending on the gravity of their sin: ice figures treachery. Marani expresses something of the same Italian horror of the cold. He was sent to Finland when the country was in the process of joining the European Union: someone thought it was easier to get established interpreters to learn Finnish than to turn Finnish linguists into interpreters. And so he was put through the yogic discipline of learning a language according to the statistical frequency of words in everyday use – a plan that sounds reasonable enough until you’re told that, after several months of study, he knew how to say ‘one’, ‘three’, ‘seven’ and ‘ten’ but not the other numbers. The experience of winter in Helsinki was more productive, at least for his imagination. In The Last of the Vostyachs, wandering frightened and disoriented around Helsinki, Ivan eventually sets out across the frozen sea. He arrives at the cramped zoo island of Korkeasaari. In the night, he plays his drum and the animals respond. He obtains the key to their cages and releases them. Tentatively, cautiously, the wolves, zebras, Siberian tigers, lynxes, guanacos and even (supposedly) pandas pad away across the ice.
Later, roaming the frozen sea on an improvised sledge pulled by reindeer, Ivan finds the bodies of two women he has known. He raises them on a catafalque built from pine trees, places stones on their chests, decorates their hair with falcon feathers and (a Dantean touch) fills their eye sockets with snow. He kneels and mourns. Later still, all the animals converge in Helsinki’s cathedral square: the wolves chase the zebras and the tiger preys on the guanacos. In the aftermath, policemen go about the streets ‘like hunters in the Savanna, carrying mangled antelopes strung from a pole’. Helsinki is an orderly city, where the schools are super-efficient, no one crosses the road until the green man shines, and the enclosures at the zoo are much too small. Marani’s gentle surrealism makes the point.
The book’s plot is a more routine contraption, bolting together elements of David Lodge and Henning Mankell. Ivan has been brought to Helsinki by Olga Pavlovna, a Russian linguist who wants to display him at a conference to prove her theory of the hybridity and geographical dispersion of the Finno-Ugric languages. Somewhat implausibly, she lets him fall into the clutches of the nationalist Professor Jaarmo Aurtova, an intellectual rival for whom she cherishes a decades-old tendresse. Aurtova aims to have Ivan shipped out of the country by a Lappish pimp; but after Ivan accidentally kills a Russian sex worker, Katia, during his first ever passionate encounter, he escapes to the frozen sea (Katia’s is one of the bodies he later finds there). Meanwhile, Aurtova lures Pavlovna to his island cottage, where he gets her drunk. We are told much about her physical shortcomings, her mouth which ‘glistened greasily’, her ‘sagging flesh’, the ‘malign force’ that in the sauna forces Aurtova to keep his eyes fixed on ‘the crease that was all too visible between her wobbling thighs’. (Women don’t fare well in Marani’s imagination, dressed as they are, across his several books, in the full range of off-the-peg misogynistic styles.) Pavlovna soon becomes the other body on the ice, Aurtova gets his comeuppance, and with the same self-undermining turn towards the comic that comes at the close of L’Interprete, Ivan ends up on one of those enormous Silja Line ferries that crisscross the Baltic gratifying their passengers with cheap booze. He joins the Estonian folk group that supplies the on-board entertainment, and so at last finds a human audience for his Vostyach beat.
Marani’s ability to see humour in his longing for a universal language has flowered in his creation of Europanto, a jovial, pan-European tongue which began in his office and spread to columns in Swiss and other newspapers, some of which have been collected in Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot. This book does not need to be translated: Europanto is ‘der jazz des linguas. Keine study necessite, just improviste, und tu shal siempre fluente esse in diese most amusingante lingua.’ Take a framework of English word order, varied with the occasional Germanic inversion, and chuck in whatever vocabulary occurs to you from French, German, Spanish, Italian and occasionally Latin. Don’t worry too much about inflections. Europanto is more capacious than Miles Kington’s Franglais, and less exacting than Esperanto.
There’s a coltish pleasure in encountering words like ‘nightcauchemare’, ‘alsyoubitte’ and ‘smilingante’, and phrases like ‘under der heat des settingante sun’. You do feel momentarily released from the ‘grammaticale rigor’ that immures us, and ready to celebrate ‘der liberatione des lingua van alles rules’. But still, though Europanto may not possess a grammar book, it does have conventions that have to be grasped and could be written down. If it didn’t, it would be incomprehensible. ‘Said’ is always ‘dixit’. ‘Was’ is ‘was’. ‘Is’ and ‘are’ are ‘esse’. Articles, conjunctions and prepositions are almost always German. Verbs tend to be English. Adjectives have French or Spanish endings. And there are unstated but powerful controls on vocabulary. There is no Chinese, of course; no Arabic, no Swahili: none of the tongues spoken by immigrant communities in Europe is represented, nor such minority languages as Welsh or Basque. Most of the official languages of Europe are excluded too: there is no Finnish, no Hungarian, no Greek. Of course, if all those tongues were thrown into the mix, Europanto would become much harder to understand for the people meant to be its audience: it wouldn’t be a lark. But that makes clear how narrow the audience necessarily is. Announced as a pan-European language, it turns out to be an argot for a cultural minority.
Europanto’s exclusiveness is comically on display in the stories Marani tells in it. Almost all of them have to do with the defence of boundaries and the enforcement of rules. Inspector Cabillot triumphs over ‘der malefiko Finnko’ who – presumably enraged by the exclusion of Finnish from Marani’s ‘multilinguale diversitas’ – WANT DAT DIE FINNISCHE LINGUA REPLACE EUROPANTO. Cabillot vanquishes the evil Frictos Kalamaros, fighting on behalf of Greek. The fringes of Europe give him endless bother: he is sent to Trapani to deal with immigrants from Tripoli, and to Wimbledon to combat ‘de Demente Bovine Frakzione’. His own borders worry him too: Marani’s squeamishness at women’s bodies flourishes in these pages, where it is given a sniggering, Carry On sheen, all ‘tittones shakerantes’, ‘jellifluo buttockones’ and panic at what might happen in a sauna. Pretending to anarchy but addicted to rules, Europanto is a paradoxical creation. In the comic mode of Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot the contradictions jangle merrily: similar stresses in Marani’s serious books assume a more troubling form.
The settings of Marani’s fiction span the whole of Europe from Lapland to Sicily. Characters of different nationalities are brought together, and communication across languages is the central concern. Yet linguistic difference and difficulty leave no mark on Marani’s style. In The Last of the Vostyachs, Olga Pavlovna is Russian and Jaarmo Aurtova is Finnish. When she sends him a letter, and when they flirt, it might all be happening in Finnish, or in Russian, or even in English used as a lingua franca: no indication is given. Whichever solution one imagines, it must be the case that at least one of the characters is not using his or her mother tongue. But Marani’s representation of this scenario gives no hint of the traits – limited metaphorical play, for example – that typify usage of a non-native language, even by a very good speaker. There is no hesitation, no misunderstanding: all is rendered in rich, seamless literary Italian. Having piled all the problems of language onto Ivan Vostyach, Marani ignores the everyday multilingualism of ordinary Europeans. He describes a world of stretched and mingled languages, but he gives his own allegiance to an autarkic mother tongue.
One might contrast any number of authors more interested in embodying linguistic difference in their writing: Sterne, Byron, Joyce, Gadda, Amelia Rosselli. The closest point of comparison is probably Christine Brooke-Rose, whose novel Between, published in 1968, inhabits the consciousness of a simultaneous interpreter who – like so many of Marani’s characters – is dislocated between nations and languages. Here she is thinking of her country cottage:
un piccolo chalet in la dolce Inghilterra dai prati smeraldini scattered with castles lampoons and rhododendrons, pettinated gardens, fiery lanes and sweet evening conversations appropriate to the narratives of Dickens und so weiter weiter gehen
It’s no more demanding linguistically than a sentence of Europanto; the difference is that here the shifts between languages are not a joke but the expressive texture of a multilingual mind. The cottage is thought of first from a distance, with Italianate sentimentality. The memory zooms into English but then veers away, itself doing what the German words say (‘moving on’). The place is vividly glimpsed but also puzzling (‘lampoons’?), and elsewhere in the novel there are many encounters with the unknown or incomprehensible. This is fiction that fully takes the pressure of the multiplicity of Europe and its languages.
And for that reason Between is locked into the layered cultures of its origin, making it almost impossible to translate. What would one translate it into? What would one be translating it out of? Marani’s monoglossic novels, on the other hand, offer themselves up to the translator. In literature, just as at the European Commission, translation happens most readily from one approved language to another: the discipline of translation and the idea of the mother tongue are mutually reinforcing. Landry is an adept translator, of the kind who likes to make it seem that the book has all along been written in English. The Last of the Vostyachs shows no more sign of having been translated out of Italian than the voices of Olga Pavlovna or Jaarmo Aurtova of having been translated into it. And yet it is through-woven with slips, shifts and contentious renderings. All translations are, though we like to forget that fact when we are reading them. Landry alters not only the evocation of the Vostyachs’ language and the direction of their journey but the consciousness attributed to the animals, the timbre of disgust that Pavlovna provokes in Aurtova, the sound of the frozen sea. One would not know it from the English alone; but, in translation, Marani’s writing is at last affected by those misalignments between languages which are its theme.