I’m a strongly language-driven reader, so it was only a matter of time before I discovered the work of Diego Marani. There are undoubtedly others who write more prettily, sentence by sentence, but I’m not sure that there’s anyone else who carries language closer to the heart. In his fiction, it always assumes a central role, actually becoming character, story, and even setting. How does that alchemy work?
Well, Marani is an Italian native who lives and works in Brussels. His day job is at the European Union, dealing with issues of interpretation, so he’s a classic polyglot. In addition to Italian, he speaks French and English, translates from Finnish and Dutch, and is more than passingly acquainted with Slovenian and Spanish. While the fiction he writes in his own time isn’t overtly autobiographical, it’s clearly a transmutation of his own experiences with cultural dislocation and a sense of being adrift on a sea of half-familiar words.
New Finnish Grammar, Marani’s award-winning 2000 novel (trans. 2011 by Judith Landry), tells the story of a severely injured sailor found in Trieste in the middle of World War II. He has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there, and the only identifying information he bears is a tag on his clothing. A doctor, an expatriate Finn, recognizes the language on the tag and deduces that the sailor is a fellow countryman, thereafter arranging his return to Helsinki, where the sailor must relearn the basics of human interaction even while the war continues. His confusion is mirrored on a national scale, as Finland fights for independence, first on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union, and then to expel the Germans.
Aspects of the plot brings to mind The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and as in that book, I’m not really giving anything away by saying that the wounded man’s identity isn’t what it first appears to be. Coincidentally or otherwise, Ondaatje is a language-driven author too, but in the more usual sense of being a word-besotted composer of lyric prose that approaches poetry. Marani writes in a more straightforward style, but language is even more integral to his project than to Ondaatje’s. The protagonist of New Finnish Grammar must invent a history and a self out of words. They’re nothing more than air, yet they’re the most important thing he has. Or any of us has, really.
Marani’s follow-up novel covers thematically similar ground. The Last of the Vostyachs (2004; trans. by Judith Landry in 2012) takes place in the same Nordic regions, this time in the present day with two main characters whose stories intertwine. The first is the last living speaker of an obscure Siberian tongue, recently released from the gulag and attempting to resume his traditional tribal way of life after the devastation of his people. He’s brought to Helsinki to be presented at a linguistics conference, but his presence is a threat to the organizing professor. This second main figure has built a career on theories that will be disproved by the Vostyach’s very existence, and so seeks to eliminate him in any way possible. The two men are as different as the tones of their respective narrative threads; the plight of the first is beautifully and poignantly described, while the ruthless machinations of the second play out as sinister comedy. The novel is a successful, genre-blending performance that again shows how all things are permeated by language, and also how much fun you can have with that idea.
And what could be more fun for someone like Marani than inventing a brand-new language? In 1996 he came up with Europanto, a mostly jocular attempt to create a universal means of communication. Unlike most serious (and seriously misguided) artificial languages, Europanto doesn’t really have rules. When you’re trying to speak or write it, you just grab whatever words come to mind from any of the major European languages and trust that you’ll be understood. Pretty much what kids in hostels do when they meet up, I imagine. Marani wrote a regular newspaper column in Europanto for years, and also concocted Les Adventures des Inspector Cabillot, which was published in the US in 2012. Let me give you a sample:
Was eine frigid morning van Octubre in Brussel. Die arbor des park was rubiconde, die benches floatingantes in eine caliginose fog. Sommige laborantes maghrebinos was der garbage collectingante terwhile singing melancholique tunes. Op der 50th floor des Europeane Polizei Tower der Chef Inspector General des Service des Bizarre Affairs, Capitain What, frapped op der tabula und dixit: “Dat esse keine joke! Call rapido Cabillot!”
Inspector Cabillot put seine Europanto crossverba under der desk, hanged der telefono und jumped op der cuirassed liftor por emergence cases.
“Moi demanded, Captain What?”
“Ja. Ich habe eine delicate mission por you.”
OK, that may be—in fact, is—a little obscure, but it’s not that hard to follow if you give it a chance. When I showed the passage to a multilingual friend, she reached the second paragraph before even realizing something was strange was afoot. I can’t speak anything other than English, but I still made plenty of headway and had fun parsing out the story. That I got anywhere at all with it is a testament to the power of human ingenuity, Marani’s more than mine. And it’s a tribute to the virtues of the good old-fashioned mystery story, in which good always triumphs over evil, and the detective always outsmarts the bad guys. “Better surrender, bandidos, villainos et mafiosos, porqué Inspector Cabillot never miss seine target!”