For the 27th week in the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I went to a local library and browsed through the fiction section. I was looking for a book that began with the letter "N" since I am reading from A to Z in 52 weeks (two books that start with the letter "A" in the first two weeks of the year, followed by two books that start with the letter "B," and so forth). It's hard to believe that half the year - and half the alphabet - has passed already.
At any rate, New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani and translated by Judith Landry was the book I selected. The back cover was filled with glowing reviews - both in regards to the story itself as well as the translation from Italian to English.
The story revolves around a wounded sailor who is found on a Trieste quay after being physically assaulted. He is amnesiac and unable to speak; and has nothing to identify him except a name tag on his clothing that indicated Finnish origins. A passing doctor resolves to teach him Finnish to restore his memory and rebuild his identity.
The sailor, who the doctor named Sampo, said, "I hope to find some memory of me in someone else; I hope to find someone who can tell me about even one single day in my past life: about one summer's afternoon when I was a child, some outing, what I games I played."
I found the book to quite sobering. I think of how frequently people leave their homes without any identification on them. If something happened, such as an accident, and the person didn't have any identification, the likelihood that the person's identity can be determined is greatly reduced.
How frightening to wake up one day and not be able to communicate...to remember words...or to remember anything about who you are or any memories from your life. Just blank.
As the sailor said, "I did not know that the trauma of which I was the victim had debarred me from the world of language .... All linguistic feeling, all interest in words, had died away. I could not speak any language, I no longer knew which was my own."
The doctor was determined to teach the sailor Finnish - the doctor's own language and one he assumed was the language spoke by the sailor. After many sessions of learning Finnish, the doctor shared a piece of advice with the sailor - from a man's point of view (versus a doctor's point of view): "Since language is our mother, try and find yourself a woman. It is from a woman that we come into this world, from a mother that we learn to speak. Fall in love, give of yourself. Switch off your brain and follow your heart. You must fall in love with a voice, and with every word you hear it utter."
The sailor followed this advice and met, spent time with, and received letters from a nurse named Ilma who later had to move away. Before she moved, she took the sailor to a special tree. "Whenever I meet someone I get on well with, I bring them here, talk to them here, let the tree take in something of our memories, and the magic starts to work."
She explains that each person in her or his life only has "a right to just one memory tree." If a person had more than one memory, she explained, then "people would just rush from one tree to the next so that nothing would ever be forgotten, so that nothing of one's own memories would be left lying around. Then nothing would be forgotten, and memories would cease to exist."
The sailor objected, "But without memories there would be no nostalgia, either."
"That's true. So how would people carry on living? After all, we live in hope that a memory will come back," she said.
I paused at that point in the story because - although this story centers on a sailor's amnesia - it, in a way, reflects the cornerstone of Alzheimer's Disease. I think of my own family...my father...my grandfather...my uncle...all who had the disease. Memories were absolutely critical to their life and living.
In each case, my father/grandfather/uncle all lived on and through memories to get through their days. Their lives revolved around a world of memories to help them survive and provide comfort to them.
New Finnish Grammar is a diary, of sorts, of the sailor. His thoughts as he goes through recovery and discovery of who he is told he is by the doctor, is the main focus of the book. Concurrently, there are sections of the book that are written in italics that reflect the doctor's thoughts after reading the diaries of the sailor after he dies.
The last chapter called "The End Foretold" was perhaps the most moving out of the entire book for me. It not only answered the question of where the name "Sampo" came from, but the impact that the revelation had on the sailor as well as the doctor who eventually was able to piece together the sailor's identity and who he actually was prior to the assault.
After reading the ending, I wanted to re-read New Finnish Grammar with that knowledge in mind. I believe the story would take on a new level of meaning and reveal even more layers of depth than the first reading of it did.