the Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (2002)
“They came out silently, without exchanging a glance; unhurriedly, expecting to be shot at any moment, to crumple on the spot, on to that mud they’d traipsed over so often.”
Ivan has been living almost his entire life in a gulag in Siberia. After his father was shot while they tried to escape, he hasn’t uttered a word. Then one day the guards have suddenly disappeared and Ivan is free to walk. And when he realises that he’s free, he utters a long cry, a sound which stirs all the animals.
When Ivan returns to the place he grew up, he discovers that he is alone. Driven by hunger, he eventually makes his way into a small village where he meets a woman, Olga. Olga is a linguist and is shocked to discover that Ivan speaks a language, Vostyach, which is believed to be extinct. She learns his language and persuades him to come along with her to the Finno-Ugric languages conference in Helsinki.
Don’t judge this book by its cover! Which is certainly one of the ugliest I have seen. The story within is amazing. It starts on the desolate Siberian tundra and journeys to Helsinki where it turns into something resembling pulp fiction with pimps and whores, a murder plot and the release of zoo animals. But it also deals with the loss of languages and although Vostyach is an invented language, the theory behind it is true.
Diego Marani turns out to be the perfect December read for me. I read New Finnish Grammar last year and it was a linguist’s take on the English Patient; small, beautiful and powerful. And the Last of the Vostyach is like a book by Arto Paasilinna, but with a linguistic twist. I hope that Diego Marani’s works will continue to be translated so I can continue to read them in December.