The Malta Independent 19 October 2018, Friday

The dislocated writer

Malta Independent Monday, 28 April 2014, 21:54 Last update: about 5 years ago

I was looking forward to interviewing this 28-year-old writer, being an admirer of his cultural journalism and film reviews in a Sunday newspaper that, unlike those of some others who dabble in this field locally, come across as highly readable prose that also put the work in question in its correct context.

In fact the first subject I bring up with Reljic is a piece he wrote severely criticising Malta’s seeming general ‘acceptance’ of sub-standard cultural fare. In this case he was writing about a film that was dubbed by its producers as Malta’s first epic movie last year. The critic lambasted the makers for biting off more than they could chew, and all those who don’t ‘tell it like it is’ simply because they want to be kind and will accept glaring deficiencies as simply inevitable by-products of trying to create art in ‘tiny’ Malta.

“I don’t subscribe to this mentality of let’s go easy on it because it's Maltese, or the tajjeb ghax Malti reasoning. Sometimes in this society it takes someone who is slightly from ‘the outside’ to give an unbiased perspective. The article got a healthy discussion going.”

According to Reljic, there are few excuses for today's local film makers, or indeed, any artists, to produce low quality material. "The Internet has rendered our 'limitations' moot. Also, being in the EU we are exposed to how things are produced overseas. Sure, sometimes equipment and technical expertise can be a problem, but essentially, if you’re motivated enough, you won't allow low-standards."

The critic questions the general modus operandi of going about getting inspiration for art in this country. "We tend to follow the UK or the US trends in art. Why don’t we look at other countries and see how they do things? Iceland, or Switzerland for example? These countries have similar 'limitations' to Malta, and yet they produce high-quality and high impact stuff."

Reljic describes the week after the article was published as one of the happiest of his life, as rather than getting condemned for his harshness, he received positive feedback. This mostly came from ambitious local writers, artists and film producers who agreed with the journalist and shared their despair at the lack of high-brow, intellectual discourse in mainstream media and the dearth of professional cultural observers who could, through their criticism, spur these same artists to improve themselves and achieve higher standards.

I suppose, as a journalist myself, the only defence I can give for this state of affairs is that, unlike Reljic, I and many other cultural observers in the press are active in various artistic fields ourselves, so we feel rather uncomfortable being too critical of other people’s work knowing that our own will one day get criticised right back. In this respect, it is Malta’s gain that erudite journalists in possession of a world view and academic credentials (he has a Masters in English Literature) such as Reljic have made an appearance and can thus contribute to the raising of standards through criticism that can be considered 'above suspicion' and free of personal motive.

The fact that he has an international background is, I believe, what makes his approach, both to cultural criticism and to writing his Malta-based novel, quite unique. Both his parents are Serbian, but Reljic came to live here very young and speaks Maltese fluently, as well as English, Serbian and a little Italian. In Two, the protagonist is nine and he ends up living in Malta after growing up in the UK. 

"I came to live in Malta aged seven, and I don’t feel as connected to Serbia as I do to here. But I've always felt 'fragmented' from a ‘national’ point of view and I am interested in exploring Malta from that angle. I still feel that Malta is something I cannot fully grasp and because of this I feel the best way to approach exploring it is creatively. That’s why I don’t write realist fiction. People like Alex Vella Gera and Guze Stagno do that excellently, but that's not the way I feel I can go about exploring Malta's 'aura'."

Indeed, the novel incorporates certain fantasy elements and contains different layers of stories within stories. Is this, I ask, to be a regular feature of his novels?

"My theme I think, is stories as escapism. I don’t want to create stuff that is just escapist: I want to explore the concept of escapism. I hope this concept comes across in Two as I wanted to explore how stories effect us as people, rather than presenting a story wholesale. Although, of course, I trust people will enjoy the story in itself..."

Reljic explains how he intentionally left certain gaps in the narrative to serve as a vehicle for the reader to bring their own interpretation to events, in the same way the young child who cannot understand all that is happening around him does. "I've always liked this approach as it creates a haunting element," he asserts.

I bring up an interesting element from the novel: the ‘blanket of air’ Reljic describes as an oppressive, heated atmosphere that the protagonist feels when he arrives in Malta. It's by no means a fresh sensation, yet it can feel strangely comforting.

"The air 'blanket' is possibly the easiest thing about Malta I could write about because it was the most immediate feeling I would have on my return from annual summer holidays in Serbia when I was younger. The air just hit me when I emerged from the plane. It was a completely different atmosphere from that of a big city, but it had... still has, a certain cosiness about it. I felt it vividly as a child and it brought with it a huge array of different feelings."

We share a giggle as we compare notes about the secondary school, Hamrun's Liceo, that we both attended, albeit in different decades. It's not surprising that he picked up Maltese so easily having attended a state school, and he laughs as he says that school is his only claim to any ‘street cred’, being a self-confessed 'geek' in all other matters.

Has he ever experienced any prejudice from the 'Malta tal-Maltin' brigade? "I wouldn’t say so. On the contrary, people are impressed that I speak Maltese. They see that as something to respect that I made the effort, but I just picked it up as a kid growing up.

"I’m very much a nurture over nature kind of guy on this subject. To me it matters not where you’re from, but what you do. It’s a very basic post-modern perspective. I don’t feel a mystical attachment to any concept of nationality. It seems to be something most people don’t question. I suppose it’s difficult to look outside yourself and be critical of what you’ve always been."

Reljic believes that perspective is the advantage he has gained from having been born somewhere else. On the other hand, he sometimes envies those who have an unproblematic view of these things.

"Feeling you are one nationality or another, and accepting a way of life that you can base everything else on, often gives people a starting point or a steady bearing to live by. This is the opposite of my existence that features a constant 'search', which is probably the reason I write."

 

 

Two

The novel has two threads to it. One is the real-life story of William, a boy with one Maltese and one English parent. The family lives in the UK but comes to Malta to spend the summer every year.

During one such trip, William’s mother suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. The boy tries to come to grips with this life-changing event, and he has to do it practically on his own as the rest of his family is so distraught it's as if they're not there. The only thing William has to hold on to are the stories that his mother used to tell him. One such story is that of Vermillion, a mythical character who lives in a fantasy world. Here, Reljic excels at weaving vivid, colourful, fantasy stories, some which have Maltese folklore elements, with the story of William himself as he tries to make sense of what is happening around him.

To complicate matters, a mysterious stranger turns up, claiming to know William’s mother, Elizabeth, from past encounters. The stranger also has an important story to tell as he seems to know more about Elizabeth than anyone else.

The second thread is the actual fantasy tale that William’s mother used to narrate to him. Vermillion lives in a village between two mountains, and when something extremely sinister happens there he has no choice but to take his destiny into his own hands. 

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