“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.
The year is 1327 and Brother William of Baskerville has arrived at an abbey in Italy where he is to attend to a meeting to try to settle the dispute between Franciscans and Dominicans. But when he and his novice, Adso, get there, they are asked by the abbot to solve a murder before the meeting is to take place.
But then more murders take place and there’s a rumour among the monks that it is inspired by the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse. And William is certain that the answer is hiding somewhere in the library, but the library is like a labyrinth.
I hate that I always have the feeling that I have only understood less than half of the books Umberto Eco writes. But the story was at least easy to follow. But for me it was impossible to understand everything about the dispute between Franciscans and Dominicans and all about the heretics. I have a feeling that I would have benefited from knowing the papal history before reading this. And Latin as many Latin phrases are not translated. Some of them I understand out of the context and others I’m sure was some brilliant insults which would be nice to know.
Nevertheless, Umberto Eco is a brilliant writer. And I’m in awe of the way that he has managed to construct an abbey and placed it in the 1300s. The characters are also interesting. And there’s a lot of interesting things that happens in the monastery, and especially at night.
“My name is Petri Friari, I live in no. 16 Kaiser-Wilhelmstrasse, Hamburg and I work as a neurologist at the city’s university hospital.
I found this manuscript on 24 January 1946 in a trunk in the military hospital in Helsinki, together with a sailor’s jacket, a handkerchief with the letters S.K. embroidered on it, three letters, a volume of the Kalevala and an empty bottle of koskenkorva.”
An unconscious man is picked up in Trieste, Italy and taken on board a German hospital ship, where the doctor, Petri Friari, takes interest in the man with no recollection of who he is. Based on the name tag on his sailor’s jacket, Sampo Karjalainen, he assumes that the man is Finnish and gets him a safe passage to Helsinki.
He is not getting much help from the doctors at the military hospital in Helsinki, but he meets a priest that helps him with learning Finnish, using the Kalevala to explain the Finns’ unique position in the world. Meanwhile, the war is raging and Sampo gets to know a nurse, Ilma, but he is afraid to get involved with her until he knows whom he truly is.
This small and quiet book is one of the best I have read this year.