This fêted novel by the Italian author and EU linguist Diego Marani is a clever variation on the whodunit – or rather, who-issit. A man is found at the harbour in Trieste during the Second World War. He’s nearly dead, having been violently assaulted. He’s wearing a jacket with a label inside it bearing the name ‘Sampo Karjalainen’ and doesn’t know who he is or how he got there. He also can’t speak a word of any language. A Finnish doctor, Friari, assumes that the mysterious invalid is Finnish, because of the label on his jacket. So he teaches ‘Karjalainen’ to speak Finnish (again?), and arranges for him to travel to Helsinki. The reader begins the story at the end, after Karjalainen has been found dead for certain in an equally insalubrious place, and Dr Friari has acquired his effects: a ‘manuscript … together with a sailor’s jacket, a handkerchief with the letters S.K. embroidered on it, three letters, a volume of the Kalevala [the Finnish epic poem] and an empty bottle of koskenkorva’.
The manuscript, Friari explains, is ‘written in a spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs, exercises in Finnish grammar and bits cut out from the Helsinki telephone directory’. Faced with this collection of fragments, the orderly doctor