18 September 2014

Interview: Divorce, Censorship and Maltese literature

 - Monday, 26 July 2010, 00:00

by Scott Grech

Living in Zebbug, the same town as Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, the MP who recently stirred the whole of Malta by presenting a private member’s bill for the introduction of divorce, is Frans Sammut, the contemporary Maltese author, who, among other works, wrote the novel Samuraj, in which protagonists succumb to the pressures of a close-knit and narrow-minded society, in part because the Church is such a domineering force.

Often criticised for being anti-establishment in his novels, Frans Sammut speaks to Scott Grech on how the Maltese would cope with the introduction of divorce, whether Maltese literature is a dying force, and why, in his opinion, it was justified to ban Alex Vella Gera’s story ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’.

“I guess you could consider Zebbug to be a microcosm of Maltese society, in that any hint of change in the ways of living is bound to bring about a wave of uncertainty and hesitation from the so-called traditionalists.

“With the same line of thought it becomes easier to explain the reasoning behind the splashing of an anti-divorce poster on a billboard just outside the parish church,” Frans Sammut comments.

Such is the extent of the Church’s influence in Zebbug, states Mr Sammut, that people from the locality still refer to men who go about their business with a minimum amount of fuss as a churchgoer, or a “ragel tal-knisja”.

Saying he agrees with the introduction of divorce, the Maltese author expresses caution over recent surveys which have predicted that the majority of the Maltese population would vote in favour had they the opportunity of casting a vote on the issue.

“Behind closed doors, and this has always been something intrinsically Maltese, people say one thing and do another.

“Considering the fact that Malta’s population is an ageing one, and the fact that the Church remains the highest institution in the land, many are still scared that the introduction of radical changes such as divorce will pave the way for the abolishment of the country’s other more traditional values.

“It will be interesting to see the reaction of the older generation if divorce is introduced in Malta,” comments Mr Sammut.

Written a few years after Malta acquired independence, Samuraj tells the story of lone bachelor Samwel, who falls for Zabbett, a young woman in her twenties, and the controversy which shrouds their lives after Zabbett feels the restraint of her parents and moves in with Samwel.

The lives of the pair take a turn for the worse when they eventually succumb to the intrusion and pressure of the village community, losing both one another and the desire to live.

“While the Church is no longer such a domineering force, and people have become more liberal, there is still a significant proportion of adolescents who feel the restraint of such a society and are left with no option but to seek pastures new in foreign countries,” said Mr Sammut.

Bearing in mind such a suffocating, controlled and stifling society might go a long way towards explaining the widespread anger and furore caused by Alex Vella Gera’s story, ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’, which was published in the students’ University newspaper Ir-Realtà and was banned by the Censorship Board after it was labelled to be grossly discriminating towards women.

While Mr Sammut states that “there is absolutely no way that the story can ever be classified as some form of literature or other,” he advocates former Labour MP Lino Spiteri’s views that charging both the author and the editor in court with offending public morals is “nothing more than silly”.

On the other hand, it bugged him more, he adds, when the police opted to arrest a group of youngsters during the Nadur carnival celebrations two years ago, for dressing up as Jesus.

“I assume that at least they could have informed the youngsters to change their attire before arraigning them in court,” said Mr Sammut.

He shares his opinions of the banned story: “It is not a question that the author used vulgar language to describe events which unfolded in his narrative. On the contrary, many authors use sexual expletives to add substance and realism to a story. However, they also distance themselves from their story.

“I have often written things as part of the plotline which, perhaps in principle, I tend not to agree with.

“However, the crux of the issue is that since there is no line of thought in the author’s story, Mr Vella Gera has repeatedly failed to state his thinking behind the protagonist of the story.

“Does he, perhaps, consider himself to be revolutionary in his thinking of women? Those who have tried to analyse the story from a literary point of view have failed to do so, simply because there is no literature in the story.”

Mr Sammut accepts the fact that there is a significant proportion of writers who are very graphic and border on the sordid in their writing, most notably the Scottish author Irvine Welsh, whose works have been classified as grotesque realism.

“Literature can be as grotesque as it wants to be, but it should always include aspects of realism if authors are really honest with themselves.

“It can be political, artistic, and social and take on many forms. I myself have written several novels which incorporate psychological realism and which a number of critics and readers have found to be challenging and controversial.

“For instance, when Il-Gagga was published in 1971, a lot of people wanted to ban the book outright, when only two years later it became part of the Maltese curriculum at University.

“However, literature should always strive to be universal and approachable to everyone, which is its necessary objective.

“Authors should stick to a theme and every word used in the novel should adhere to the theme, in a similar way that every brush of paint from an artist is relevant to the whole piece of art he is painting,” Mr Sammut reflects.

Even though he has written on a number of controversial and sensitive topics, including sodomy, the Maltese author prides himself that he has never used a vulgar word in his fiction.

Mr Sammut admits however that the whole commotion surrounding the ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ story has possibly opened up a can of worms into what does and what doesn’t offend public morals.

After a court decided to ban the performance of the play Stitching in Malta, only for it recently to be given a 14 rating at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, have things spiralled out of control?

“Stitching is another thing altogether, because we have no clear indications of what the whole play is about since it hasn’t been performed before in Malta.

“However, I would have to be the first to dispel the myth doing the rounds that the Censorship Board is made up of outdated people with a backward mentality. On the contrary, the majority are quite avant-garde in their way of thinking, and they certainly know what they’re doing,” said Mr Sammut.

While he adds that there must have been some valid reason why Stitching was banned, Mr Sammut says it is time for the Maltese to distance themselves from sensationalism.

He gives the example of those who fall privy to superstition instead of religion.

“Some Maltese have cited that they have been blessed with the presence of the Virgin Mary who helped them recover from a particular illness or other. Does this mean that the mother of God has forgotten the others who are faithful Catholics and who celebrate Mass every day of the week?

“Unfortunately there is a tendency in Malta to blow things out of proportion, rather than allowing for reasoning and understanding to be the order of the day, and this is starting to become the case with literature,” stated Mr Sammut.

Having been one of the main Maltese authors at the forefront of Maltese literature, Mr Sammut first gained recognition in the late 1960s when he co-founded the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju – the Literary Revival Movement – whose aim was to promote and improve the level of Maltese literature in the country.

“Back in the 60s, Maltese literature was blessed with writers and poets of a high calibre, writers whose works were studied by major critics abroad and whom the most open-minded of critics labelled as being rebellious in writing.

“Even though some are wrongly considering Maltese literature to be a dying force, in the sense that such a golden era can never be replaced, I am confident that every new generation will bring about its fair share of high-quality Maltese authors,” said Mr Sammut.

While voicing his pleasure at the Books at the Beach incentive, inaugurated recently by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco, the author predicts that this incentive might entice the younger generation to further their reading in Maltese.

In the meantime, he stresses the need for a better teaching of Maltese.

“Unfortunately, it appears that the country’s citizens are not very appreciative of the beauty of the Maltese language.

“How else can you explain the scores of text messages which appear as running commentary on TV chat shows, but which are not edited before being transmitted?

“Both the synchronic and diachronic aspects of the Maltese language need to be taught simultaneously. Having a language spoken by as little as 400,000 means that no half measures need to be taken when it comes to Maltese and everything should be done to protect such a fascinating language,” said Mr Sammut, finding it difficult to control his disgust when he mentions that he was approached by someone recently who proposed that Maltese should do away with the “gh” and allow speakers of the language to write words as they sound.

Asked about his favourite out of his own publications, Mr Sammut said it was Il-Holma Maltija, which took 25 years of continuous research and writing before it was complete, albeit “the most enjoyable book I ever wrote”.

It was during this time, when he first came up with the idea of writing the book, that he recognised the genius that was Mikiel Anton Vassalli, the first to study Maltese scientifically and according to its Semitic roots and whom Napoleon described when he arrived in Malta as “the most intelligent prisoner locked in a cell” after Vassalli was imprisoned for his radical views.

Studying Vassalli’s life soon fuelled a new passion in Mr Sammut, and he soon became an avid historian of Napoleon, whom he considers, together with Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, “to be the greatest commander the world ever saw”.

“Napoleon practically tried to do more in Malta than the British ever did in 150 years of ruling.

“He issued a series of decrees, aiming to bring about a thorough reorganisation of the government and society in Malta, and tirelessly sought to review the country’s laws and regulations. He tried to rid the stagnation of Malta under the influence of the Knights of St John, whom he felt had outstayed their welcome, and strove hard to make the country on a par with other influential countries at the time.

“He was in discussions with the Church at the time on whether to introduce civil marriages in Maltese society, which would have automatically paved the way for the introduction of divorce.

“Had he done so, perhaps Zebbug would not have become embroiled in its current controversy,” smirks Mr Sammut.

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