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The Last of the Vostyachs

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Review Text

  • By Andrew J. P. Maclean on June 9, 2013

    The prose is dense, but well written, with rather long quotations in places that don't really add to the story. Other than that, it is an interesting take on how exploitation by academics can happen in relation to someone who is the last of his tribe. The twist at the end is good but I would have thought that Ivan (the last of the Vostyachs) would have been more fluent in the other languages that surround him, humans are pretty efficient at communicating.

  • By Chris Nelson on September 8, 2013

    This is a well crafted book that survives translation beautifully. It's a fast paced story that despite the arcane knowledge of languages peoples and dialects keeps you interested.

  • By Jac on August 9, 2013

    Compelling start but the story fast became very predictable and uninteresting. In the end it was barely readable. Don't bother.

  • By Warwick Johnson on August 9, 2013

    An intriguing premise with real potential, but it descends into farce and slapstick, which diminishes the impact. A book I started with real expectations, but I finally closed the last page with some relief.

  • By Jerzy K on October 8, 2016

    Better than God's Dog -- has a lot more bark, but not up to the same excellent level of writing as Finnish Grammar.

  • By Ralph Blumenau on February 6, 2014

    For twenty years Ivan, arrested together with his father for poaching, had been in a Soviet Gulag in far north of Siberia. After his father had been killed trying to escape, Ivan had not spoken a word. Then, one late autumn day, the soldiers had gone, the inmates left the camp and scattered, and Ivan trudged on alone, for a long time not meeting a soul, surviving by using his old trapping skills. With a home-made drum or flute he can summon, charm or check wild animals. He has the occasional mystical vision. He belongs to the Vostyach tribe, which many scientists believed to have become extinct, and he spoke its near-extinct language.At last he stumbled on a village inn, and by chance, temporarily marooned there by deep snow, was Olga, a Russian linguist who was making a study of the local languages. She recognized his language, had some Vostyach vocabulary herself, and made recordings of him. She is thrilled to discover that this language is a link between the Finnish and the Eskimo-Aleut language, proving the contested idea that in antiquity the same language group was spoken from Siberia to North America. (There is a good deal of technical discussion about this.) Ivan, for his part, is delighted to be able to communicate with her. Olga was about to attend a congress on the Finno-Ugric languages in Helsinki, and persuaded him to come with her. Needless to say, he was utterly bewildered and frightened by trains, planes, and cities. A commitment makes her send Ivan ahead of her and ask Professor Aurtova, who will be running the Congress, to look after him for a few hours until she arrives.Up to this point, the story is powerful, poetic, and captivating. But it then changes tone.Aurtova is a Finnish patriot, hates anything that comes out of Russia, and so has an ideological resistance to the idea that there was any connection between the Finns and the Voystyachs (or, for that matter, between the Finns and the Algonquin Indians). The Finns, he will argue, have long refused to learn neighbouring languages, and he wants this to continue to maintain the purity of their language. Field-Marshal Mannerheim was his hero, and it also emerges later that he hates democracy. Aurtova is also a vile and ruthless scoundrel (he is detested by his ex-wife), and he will go to extreme lengths to prevent Ivan or Olga appearing at the Congress. The descriptive passages are as powerful as ever, but the novel becomes a melodramatic thriller. There are murders. The animals in a zoo are set free and roam the city. Coincidences abound. At first I found this change of tack disconcerting, but because the descriptive passages are as powerful as ever, I adjusted to it, and found the thriller gripping. It does not quite lose sight of the language question, and it reemerges strongly near the end of the book. There is a wonderfully symbolical scene on a liner from Helsinki to the Aland Islands. It is hard to believe, but its development will make for a satisfying conclusion to the novel.(See also my Amazon review of Marani’s earlier novel “New Finnish Grammar”)

  • By Velomoon on March 15, 2013

    Ivan, is the last of the Vostyachs, the last member of a tribe that connects the language of certain tribes of the North Americas and Finnish, they were also very powerful shamans, with the ability to be understood by most animals. Although he hasn't spoken a word in years, not since as a child he saw his father shot dead at the slave labour camp they were prisoners at. Shoot forward twenty years and Ivan wanders out of the camp after the guards all left when their wages stopped arriving. He leaves the camp moving out into the woods, then as if led by some occult power, he returns to his place of origin and starts to live as his forebears did, through this mystifying power he also rediscovers his language & the ability to be understood by the wildlife. Winter hits the region and the weather turns harsh forcing him to visit a local village to trade for food.It is here that Ivan is discovered by Olga, a linguist, stuck in the village because of the weather, her curiosity is roused by this man who speaks this strange language, which she soon realises is an ancient tongue, and possibly one that joins Finland to pre-Columbian North America. She confides this information via a letter to Professor Jaarmo Aurtova, an expert on Finno-Ugric. This turns out to be a bad decision (Understatement Alert!!) as he plans a speech at the 21st Congress of Finno-Ugric, and in that speech he aims to pronounce Finnish as Europe's oldest & purest language, meaning Olga's news will blow his speech out of the water.Not knowing this, Olga sends Ivan to Helsinki, and arranges for Jaarmo to meet him. From this point the writer of the book chucks in a couple of murders, a zoo emptied of it's wildlife, an angry ex-wife trailing around the city & an Estonian folk group, all linked in some way by the professor, as he tries to bury all knowledge of the existence of Ivan & more importantly his language. To find out how the author combines all of this you will have to read this very clever and very funny book. Diego Marani's book New Finnish Grammar, made the Official Shortlist for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with the judges stating that.."This subtle and moving novel shows how much of what we take to be ourselves depends upon the language that we speak and the identity it gives us. It also shows how suddenly that self can be taken away."In the Last Of The Vostyachs, the author's obsessions are still the same, language, it's purpose not merely as an instrument for communication, but also how it relates to the behavioural codes and cultural values that go to construct ones identity and that not only does language define the characteristics of a specific group or community, it is also the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others. Although this time he has used them to create a fantastic clever, funny mystery/thriller complete with a wonderful villain, that you'll love to hate and whose exploits you'll be amazed and shocked by, all whilst laughing at him, especially in the end scenes.......... but I'll let you discover the delights of that moment.This book as with New Finnish Grammar, was translated by Judith Landry, and as with that book, she has my heartfelt thanks for allowing me the opportunity to read this with the ease I did. It has also made the longlist for this years (2013) Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, it will be interesting to see if Diego Marani and Judith Landry make the shortlist for the second year running.


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