The Last of the Vostyachs

Matthew Reynolds writes:

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’.

(LRB 8 November 2012)

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