Italian writer Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs was originally published in 2002, but the English translation was not published until 10 years later in 2012. How lucky we are that it was, because this book is unlikely to have been written by an English-language writer. Its focus on the relationship between language, culture and place and on darker issues like ethnic nationalism comes from a different – and particularly European – sensibility. We speakers of the world’s dominant language can, I think, be a bit oblivious to the linguistic issues faced by speakers of other languages, particularly in Europe where multiple languages live cheek by jowl. The challenge of communication is an important issue for Marani who works in Brussels for the European Union. His roles have included interpreter, translator, and policy adviser on multilingualism. Marani knows as well as anyone that language is both a cultural and political issue – and this is what he explores in this, his second novel.
However, The last of the Vostyachs is no dry tome explicating the role and value of language. Instead it is a surprising and often funny novel that weaves myth and saga, melodrama and irony through the warp of a crime thriller. It incorporates a number of literary traditions and archetypes: the wild (innocent) man set loose in the city, the spurned wife, the spirit guide, the corrupt obsessive, and the remote cottage in the woods where dastardly things happen. On the night the crimes (murders, in fact) take place, nature runs amok. Zoo animals roam the city and the temperature drops to its coldest in fifty years.
The plot centres on Ivan, who is the last of the Vostyachs, an ancient Siberian shamanic tribe. He is the only one who can speak the language, though at the novel’s opening he had not spoken it (or anything else) for twenty years, not since, as a young boy in the gulag, he’d seen his father killed. When the gulag is suddenly freed, he returns to the Byrranga Mountains but all he finds are wolves. He believes them to be his people who, to flee the soldiers, had hidden deep in caves and turned into wolves. He cannot bring them back to human form but they shadow and protect him.
Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive
Into this mix appears the plain, ethical, Russian linguist Olga who is excited to find a speaker of a language thought to have been extinct and who sees in this language an exciting connection between Europeans and the native Americans. Her old colleague, the womanising, unethical, Finnish linguist Jarmo Aurtova is not so pleased with this threat to his theory of Finnish as the “Latin of the Baltic”, as, in effect, the master language of Europe. Jarmo sounds scarily like Hitler in his desire to prove the supremacy of a pure Finnish language:
In ancient times we were the civilised ones and they were the barbarians. We were the masters, they were the slaves. Not for nothing is the word aryan so similar to the Finnic orja, which means slave.
But now ‘someone’ was trying to throw Finland into the dustbin of history, together with the other conquered peoples who have no future. Aurtova was not having that …
Jarmo cares not if a language or two disappears and dies in the service of his theory. He believes that the fewer the languages the more “we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language”, while for Olga “with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it”. Marani, the creator of the flexible inclusive language Europanto, is on Olga’s side, on the side of plurality. She says
The true meaning of things is hidden from us; it lies beyond the bounds of any one language, and everyone tries to arrive at it with their own imperfect words. But no language can do this on its own. Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive.
The last of the Vostyachs is a ripping yarn that takes us from the tundra to Helsinki, through city streets, down country roads, across ice and onto the sea, as the various characters pursue their passions. But it’s the irony that conveys its main messages – and much of this irony revolves around our arch-villain and misogynst, Jarmo. His guilt as a murderer is revealed through a clue that is gorgeously ironic. In his final speech to the linguistic congress he, an academic for heaven’s sake, exhorts people to “cherish ignorance”, to not learn other people’s languages but “force” them to learn yours. And, most ironic of all, not only is the Vostyach language not destroyed, but by the end of the book, without giving too much away, “it could truly be said to be alive and flourishing” – albeit in a rather odd place.
Partway through the novel, Olga says to Jarmo of Finns that “to communicate with the rest of the world you have to learn another one, you have to venture out among words which are not your own, which you have borrowed from others”. In The last of the Vostyachs, Marani has ventured out and written something wild and rather risky. In doing so, he has produced a novel that’s not only fun to read but also gives the mind much to think about.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers read and enjoyed this book earlier this year.
The last of the Vostyachs
(Trans. by Judith Landry)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978192196885 (Kindle ed.)