Diego Marani is so obsessed by language that he has created one of his own. Europanto, a delightful mix of French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and absurdity, features regularly in the Italian novelist, translator and Eurocrat’s newspaper columns. “Por speak Europanto tu just mix parolas from differente linguas und voila che tu esse perfecte Europanto speakante. Europanto necessite keine study tu just improviste, invente und siempre esse fluente.”
Here in Australia for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and a brief visit to Melbourne at the Italian Institute of Culture, there is, says Marani, a serious side to this “provocation” of an invented language: the more we borrow words and phrases from each other’s languages, the more connected we become to one another. He frowns on linguistic preciousness (I suspect he has little time for the Académie Franҫaise). In Brussels, his current day job consists of co-ordinating language programmes at universities throughout Europe to promote multi-lingualism and his latest novel to be translated into English – The Last of the Vostyachs – features the last speaker of an almost dead language, which has roots that spread from the Balkans to the indigenous languages of North America. The novel’s message is clear: nationalism is dangerous and we are enriched by the cultures of others.
Marani’s passion for language developed early. Born in Ferrara in 1959, he was intrigued by his grandparents’ Italian dialect. Forbidden at school in favour of pure Tuscan, fewer and fewer people were speaking “Ferrarese”, yet it has a particular Italian richness which is ideal for story-telling. Marani recalls the delight of absorbing an ancient tradition and at the same time understood that this secret knowledge also set him apart. “I saw the link between language and identity and it is one I have continued to explore”.
This is especially true of Marani’s novel, New Finnish Grammar, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award and the Best Translated Book Award. Set in 1943, the central protagonist has lost both his memory and his language. Found wounded and dressed in the uniform of a Finnish sailor, he is sent back to Finland to reaclimatise himself with his heritage. Yet “Sampo” cannot relate to fiendishly complex Finnish as a language, nor to the bleakness of the Finnish landscape. To know a language is ultimately to know oneself, and Sampo’s desperate floundering on both counts drives Marani’s narrative.
Sampo’s plight in some ways recalls Marani’s own, as he too struggled to learn Finnish, and he voiced much of his own sense of isolation in the novel. “Fifteen cases – this is not a language, this is a torture!”, he jokes. At the same time, he recognises that learning another language also creates multiple levels of personality.
“When you learn to speak another language, your facial expressions change to reflect the personality of that language. You open your mouth wider when you speak Italian, you close your mouth tighter when you speak English. You wear a different face for each language, a different mask. Language learning gives you a more profound awareness of the human condition but I am also aware that it gives you a more complex and perhaps indefinite identity.”
He has written about these many-faced identities in his latest novel “Il Cacciatore di Talenti” (The Talent Hunter) which has not yet been translated into English, and which tells stories of Italians living and working abroad. Currently, he is working on a book about work, in particular stories of people whose lives have been devastated by the loss of a job or the need to migrate.
Hopefully, the book will have an optimistic flavour, as his characters rediscover new versions of themselves and reinvent their lives in a new setting. After all, much of their personality will be shaped by the acquisition of language. “And at that point boundaries blur – speaking a language is like learning a musical instrument. Each has their own rules but all languages are like music, which is the most universal language of all.”
New Finnish Grammar and Last of the Vostyachs are both published by Text.