During World War II, a man is found beaten and unconscious in the streets of Trieste and brought to a German hospital ship. The Finnish-born doctor serving the German naval forces recognizes the name on his uniform as that of a vessal originating in Helsinki, the “Sampo Karjalainen." When the man wakes up, he has total amnesia; his memory loss has extended to language. In a crazy gesture of compassion, the doctor arranges for the man to be conveyed across war-torn Europe and home to Helsinki to be tended by a specialist. The doctor hopes that exposure to his homeland, its culture, and especially its language, will help the recovery of the man now called Sampo. They never see each other again.

Isolated and confused, Sampo, is given a bed in an empty visitors' ward of the hospital. The much awaited specialist never appears and Sampo never understands why. His closest friend is a tippling priest who teaches him Finnish through a reading of the Kalevala legends, libated with shots of Kosenkorva. He befriends some Russians who are housed briefly in his ward and he contemplates the hostilities between the nations. He wanders the city of Helsinki looking for triggers that may hand him back his identity – his past, a narrative. One of the nurses takes an interest in his case, shows him a special memory tree in a Helsinki park – and accepts his rejection of her affection with good grace. She is transferred to another place, but writes to him. He is unable to respond. She is angry.

In desperation Sampo joins the Finnish army and leaves for the eastern front. An epilogue tracks his demise and the doctor’s later discovery of his massive error. 



A remarkable story about the nature of identity, its relationship to memory. and the (im)possibility of trying to recover language and past in a difficult, strange tongue.

The doctor’s empathy for his patient may have been triggered by his own latent sense of guilt, for never having returned to his homeland. His well-intentioned plan to immerse the man in his own country guaranteed that he would never hear own native language again. The act of kindness seems grandiose and selfish.

The Italian author worked as a linguist for the Council of the European Union and has invented a language. This his sixth novel is a thought experiment about beginning anew as an adult with a completely different form of communication: Finnish is very distant from Italian. 


translated from the Italian by Judith Landry


Dedalus Europe

Place Published

Sawtry, UK



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