Such is the title of Matthew Reynolds’s LRB review of several books by Diego Marani, who “works in the Directorate-General for Interpretation at the European Commission, and he writes fiction full of ideas prompted by his day job.” His novels frankly don’t sound very good, even leaving aside the repellent misogyny, but the ideas are lots of fun to read about, so here are some excerpts from the review:
One strand of Marani’s fiction pursues the dream of a language that’s a mother tongue for everyone. L’Interprete (published in 2004, but not yet put into English) tells the story of a simultaneous interpreter, fluent in 15 languages, who finds emerging uncannily from within him an idiom that seems to unite them all. Marani’s feeling about Tresigallese here expands, beyond Koskela’s nationalist myth of Finnish, into what is frankly the language of Eden and therefore of the universe. As a linguist, Marani knows his dream is a chimera. And so, in this novel, he adopts the modes of fantasy writing. His Interpreter exerts a numinous influence over everyone he meets: women find him irresistible; deaths happen in his wake. These are all ways of sustaining the fiction under the pressure of disbelief, but in the end it cracks. The Interpreter turns out not to have discovered the language of Eden but only that of striped dolphins, one of many, mutually incomprehensible submarine tongues. He ends up leading aquatic acrobatics in a dolphinarium in Tallinn, a lesser, gloomier Dr Dolittle.
The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani’s latest book to be translated into English, isn’t as fantastical as L’Interprete, or as melancholy as New Finnish Grammar. The myth of linguistic origin blurrily put forth by Pastor Koskela is here taken to be true. Marani imagines an ur-language for Finnish and the other Uralic tongues which spread along the northern rim of Eurasia from Finland to the Laptev Sea. The book begins when Ivan, the last speaker of Vostyach, the ur-language, walks free from a Siberian work camp where he has been confined for twenty years. He goes out into the humanless landscape, ‘sinking his feet into the moss’, pressing on ‘through clouds of mosquitoes which settled on his face’. Night comes, a ‘white arctic night’ that ‘wiped away the shadows’. Then, in the dawn, he speaks, and ‘all nature quaked.’ Each animal ‘answered Ivan’s words with its own call’. When Ivan speaks, he can give real names to ‘the black fish hidden in the mud of the arctic lakes’ and to ‘the fleshy mosses which, for just a few summer’s days, purpled the rocks’. This unity of word and world is better realised in the richer phonetic harmonies of the Italian: ‘il nome dei pesci neri nascosti nella melma dei laghi artici, dei muschi carnosi che nel mezzo dell’estate per qualche giorno soltanto colorano di viola le rocce sopra il Tajmyr.’
If Vostyach seems a less convincing idea in English than in Italian it may partly be that cultural predispositions are to blame. Marani’s Vostyachs ‘had found the passage towards another world in the darkness of the forests and had never wanted to turn back’ (‘nel buio delle foreste avevano trovato il passaggio verso un altro mondo e non avevano più voluto tornare indietro’) but Judith Landry’s ‘had found the way out of the dark forests into another world but never the way back’. The hints of Christian mysticism drop away in the English version, whose tone perhaps owes something to our tradition of taking transportation to another world as material for nonsense or children’s writing: Wonderland, Neverland, Narnia. […]
In the ninth circle of Dante’s hell there is a frozen lake, where traitors are variously implanted or submerged, depending on the gravity of their sin: ice figures treachery. Marani expresses something of the same Italian horror of the cold. He was sent to Finland when the country was in the process of joining the European Union: someone thought it was easier to get established interpreters to learn Finnish than to turn Finnish linguists into interpreters. And so he was put through the yogic discipline of learning a language according to the statistical frequency of words in everyday use – a plan that sounds reasonable enough until you’re told that, after several months of study, he knew how to say ‘one’, ‘three’, ‘seven’ and ‘ten’ but not the other numbers. […]
Marani’s ability to see humour in his longing for a universal language has flowered in his creation of Europanto, a jovial, pan-European tongue which began in his office and spread to columns in Swiss and other newspapers, some of which have been collected in Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot. This book does not need to be translated: Europanto is ‘der jazz des linguas. Keine study necessite, just improviste, und tu shal siempre fluente esse in diese most amusingante lingua.’ Take a framework of English word order, varied with the occasional Germanic inversion, and chuck in whatever vocabulary occurs to you from French, German, Spanish, Italian and occasionally Latin. Don’t worry too much about inflections. Europanto is more capacious than Miles Kington’s Franglais, and less exacting than Esperanto.
There’s a coltish pleasure in encountering words like ‘nightcauchemare’, ‘alsyoubitte’ and ‘smilingante’, and phrases like ‘under der heat des settingante sun’. You do feel momentarily released from the ‘grammaticale rigor’ that immures us, and ready to celebrate ‘der liberatione des lingua van alles rules’. But still, though Europanto may not possess a grammar book, it does have conventions that have to be grasped and could be written down. If it didn’t, it would be incomprehensible. ‘Said’ is always ‘dixit’. ‘Was’ is ‘was’. ‘Is’ and ‘are’ are ‘esse’. Articles, conjunctions and prepositions are almost always German. Verbs tend to be English. Adjectives have French or Spanish endings. And there are unstated but powerful controls on vocabulary. There is no Chinese, of course; no Arabic, no Swahili: none of the tongues spoken by immigrant communities in Europe is represented, nor such minority languages as Welsh or Basque. Most of the official languages of Europe are excluded too: there is no Finnish, no Hungarian, no Greek. Of course, if all those tongues were thrown into the mix, Europanto would become much harder to understand for the people meant to be its audience: it wouldn’t be a lark. But that makes clear how narrow the audience necessarily is. Announced as a pan-European language, it turns out to be an argot for a cultural minority. […]
The settings of Marani’s fiction span the whole of Europe from Lapland to Sicily. Characters of different nationalities are brought together, and communication across languages is the central concern. Yet linguistic difference and difficulty leave no mark on Marani’s style. In The Last of the Vostyachs, Olga Pavlovna is Russian and Jaarmo Aurtova is Finnish. When she sends him a letter, and when they flirt, it might all be happening in Finnish, or in Russian, or even in English used as a lingua franca: no indication is given. Whichever solution one imagines, it must be the case that at least one of the characters is not using his or her mother tongue. But Marani’s representation of this scenario gives no hint of the traits – limited metaphorical play, for example – that typify usage of a non-native language, even by a very good speaker. There is no hesitation, no misunderstanding: all is rendered in rich, seamless literary Italian. Having piled all the problems of language onto Ivan Vostyach, Marani ignores the everyday multilingualism of ordinary Europeans. He describes a world of stretched and mingled languages, but he gives his own allegiance to an autarkic mother tongue.
Pet peeve: why are non-Russians so unable to cope with Russian names? They’re not that hard. In this case, Pavlovna is pressed into service as a family name when it’s patently a patronymic; I assume that’s Marani’s fault, but I suppose it could be the translator’s. In any event, it’s rare to read a novel by a foreigner involving Russians where all the Russian names are plausible, and it annoys the hell out of me.