New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, is only indirectly about grammar. You need have no knowledge of Finnish in order to appreciate the novel. In fact, the reader makes discoveries about the Finnish language through its protagonist, an amnesiac who has lost the ability to communicate and who, when it's assumed that he's Finnish, sets about learning the language.
The thing he likes most about Finnish is the abessive, "a declension for things we haven't got: koskenkorvsatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It's beautiful, it's like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven't got than that we have."
For the man who assumes the name Sampo Karjalainen, because that's what the label in his jacket says, learning Finnish and roaming around Helsinki are the only possible way to stir up some memories, reclaim an identity. Oh, and it's 1943 — war is raging outside.
I don't know much about Finland, so it was a bit of an eye-opener to read about Finland's involvement in World War II, its warring history with Russia in particular, its relationship with Slavic peoples, and its epic tradition.
The Kalevala is Finland's national epic, with a creation myth, magic, and romance. The Sampo is a magical talisman said to bring luck to its holder and consequences on those who come into contact with it.
"When you read the Kalevala you will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us! Look!" he added, opening the black leatherbound volume on the table. "These are not just words! This is a revealed cosmogony, the mathematics that holds the created world in place! Ours is a logarithmic grammar; the more you chase after it, the more it escapes you down endless corridors of numbers, all alike yet subtly different, like the fugues of Bach! Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate; instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without. As a result, the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in upon itself; her meaning ripens slowly and then, when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive, leaving those who are not familiar with our language with the feeling that they have failed to understand what has been sad. For this reason, when foreigners listen to a Finn speaking, they always have the sense that something is flying out of his mouth the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight: it is this that you must catch, using your eyes and ears. Hands are no help. This is one of the loveliest things about the Finnish language!"
New Finnish Grammar is a sad book, and quietly beautiful, but not the astoundingly original novel many reviews would have me believe. It's sad, but at a distance.
What Marani captures brilliantly is the experience of living in a foreign language. While my experience of choosing to move to a bilingual city in no way compares to Sampo's sense of isolation and his desperation to claim an identity, I do know what it is to be a linguistic outsider: no matter how well you conjugate your verbs, there will always be people who speak too fast or with a peculiar accent, that you will asking to repeat themselves or reconcile yourself to missing half of what they say; there will always be words whose meaning you have to piece together from context, semantic nuances you won't detect, cultural references that fly right past you. It is near impossible to be fully fluent in a language you learned the hard way.
In 1943 Finland, the present is bleak and the future uncertain; as time goes, it becomes harder to feel sympathetic toward Sampo. This book could have been about its other characters: the doctor who first found Sampo, the pastor who tutors him, the nurse who falls for him. Each of them has their own struggle with the past and their place in the world. I think it might have been a better book if these characters' stories were fuller, to balance Sampo's lack of a story.