Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Going home

"We come into the world in one place only, and only there do we belong. Sooner or later, the globetrotter who leaps from one identity to another like an acrobat on a trapeze will lose his footing, find himself down on the ground, pinned down, well-travelled though he be, by the memory of a few houses and a dusty road. When the hour of death draws near, even those who have spent their whole lives claiming they do not have a country will hear the sudden call of the place where everything began, and where they know they are awaited. There, and there only, everything will always be the same, each smell, each colour, each sound in its right place. When we go home, memory vanishes, and with it, pain. When end and beginning meet, it means nothing has happened. All was a dream within another dream, and perhaps man too is the stuff of dreams."

I'm afraid I don't agree - even if it can presumably be argued that I just haven't reached that point yet! The novel, "New Finnish Grammar" by Diego Marani (translated from the Italian by Judith Landry), revolves around a well-intentioned mistake by a Finnish doctor, exiled from his own country, who helps an amnesiac sailor he thinks is Finnish to "relearn" the Finnish language and "return" to Finland. But in fact the sailor is Italian, and lives the rest of his life in an alienated state (or even State). DM is a linguist, and while I greatly enjoyed the book, and especially its reflexions on language, it reads to me like an intellectual exercise, which does not entirely convince - at least after leaving the world of the novel to return to real life.

One issue, which might have been developed in the novel, is that countries don't remain the same, so "home", in the sense of one's country of origin as it was maybe half a century ago, no longer exists. In the case of refugees, this may be literally true, but even for the rest of us, "the past is another country; they do things differently there." And we cannot go back:
"Into my heart an air that kills - From yon far country blows.
What are those blue-remembered hills: - What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content - I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went - and cannot come again."

Another issue - especially the case for Italians, it seems to me - is the extent to which people identify with their place of origin at different levels - city, province, country. Is a Sicilian more exiled from home in Munich than in Milan? I don't know. Am I, who can't identify with a home town or region, likely to pine for my home country in the same way as someone who lived in the same place for 30 years before going to live in another country? I think not. But if I was "exiled" from my language, that might be another matter.


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