Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Minervans found Diego Marani's The last of the Vostyachs both enjoyable, unpredictable, very funny and a linguistic puzzle.

It was published ten years ago in Italian and only recently translated into English. How much do we like reading translations? One member raised the question of trusting translators and the possibility of feeling disconnected with the author. Most of us liked this novel and we were not bothered about its origins.

 Is it satirical? Is it a myth? Why did an Italian write a story about Finns and their language? We discovered that Marani is obsessed by language and has even written his own called Europanto. His "primary concern is how international understanding rests with a shared language". (Luke May in review, 30/4/13)

This story's background is the longterm antipathy between the Finns and the Russians and all that that connotes. This antagonism is clearly highlighted in the characters of the Finnish scholar Professor Aurtova and the Russian scholar Olga.  She says to him:

your language has never known the dizzying heights of universality. No one studies it and all you can do is repeat it among yourselves because it tells of a tiny country no-one knows ... 

The professor tries to counter this with statements such as  'long live Finland long live ignorance'.

Marani surprises the reader by making the Finn the bad guy (actually, truly evil) hero' and the Russian woman being of outstanding character, foresight and exemplary behaviour (for most of the novel).

The 'Vostyach' is a 'strange' fellow whose language develops with time and we were interested that 'things that had not been named for years emerged sluggishly from their long sleep, realizing they still existed'.  The happy ending for Ivan (the Vostyach) was a little incomprehensible for some readers in our group.

We endeavoured to talk about the 'big picture' too -- how does language define culture and nationality? In order to have a nation do we need to have a common language? Big questions but few answers !