The Malta Independent 14 November 2018, Wednesday

The prism of all sin

Monday, 29 May 2017, 14:10 Last update: about 2 years ago

Joseph Anthony Debono

In the introduction to his latest book, L-Aqwa Żmien Għalihom - Erba' Snin ta' Skandli, Dr Mark A. Sammut remarks that he is not a novelist. But reading through his book, one gets the impression that though Dr Sammut may not be a novelist, he has mastered the genre of contemporary horror. For in L-Aqwa Żmien Għalihom, Dr Sammut has exposed the horrors of systemic corruption better than that American master of the genre, Stephen King, himself.

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Nonetheless, there is another structure lying beneath the horrors apparent at first glance. Corruption is not a mere abusive exchange of favours. It is a cloud of corrosion that affects all aspects of individual and social morality, and a man as erudite as Dr Sammut could not have, and did not, fail to notice this. The structure of the book reflects this observation. For Dr Sammut calls his introduction "Is-Seba' Skandli Mewwija" with apologies to Trevor Żahra. Now Trevor Żahra's work is one of fantasy, and does not greatly resonate with Dr Sammut's theme in this book. But a man of the erudition of Dr Sammut would have certainly have had another, more appropriate, reference in mind. It is for this reason that I have a very strong suspicion that Dr Sammut is making an oblique reference to the seven deadly sins. For as it happens, Dr Sammut's book tackles seven out of the grand catalogue of this government's scandals, and these scandals fall, whether by the author's conscious intention or otherwise, loosely into the category of each of the seven deadly sins. Some may dispute that these scandals fall into such a disparate group of immoralities for, after all, the underlying motivation for most of these scandals is illicit profit. However, Dr Sammut has a far more subtle mind than that. He knows that the great dictum of the New Testament is "radix malorum est cupiditas" (avarice is the root of all evil), and thus avarice is the sin that underpins all  others. Hence, under the structure of these seven sins lies the fundamental unity of Dr Sammut's work - that avarice is the parent and progenitor of the whole panoply of sin.

The seven scandals that Dr Sammut lays out are the following. His first chapter deals with the Gaffarena expropriations through collusion with some individual of uncertain identity. That this scandal falls into the category of avarice is incontrovertible. The second scandal deals with the assignments of oriental opulence that Sai Mizzi, wife of minister Konrad Mizzi, was awarded under this government. While one may argue that this is a case of avarice, a more refined theologian would argue that such favours bestowed within the conjugal bond cannot but fall under the head of lust. Dr Sammut's third chapter deals with the transfer of management of major institutions of public health to Vitals Global Healthcare, a private company. The story is of implications as serious as the rest but my eye was particularly drawn to Martin Scicluna's statement, quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Scicluna says that before acquiring this contract, "Vitals Global Healthcare has never managed any form of healthcare anywhere in the world". Surely this falls into the category of pride, the third mortal sin. The fourth scandal concerns the Gozo drug case. In this case, an allegation of ministerial interference with the police over cases of drug trafficking had to be examined by an inquest appointed for this purpose. But, mysteriously, this inquest dragged its feet until it fell out of view. There can, therefore, be no doubt that this delay or inaction is an example of another deadly sin, that of sloth. The fifth chapter of the book deals with the Zonqor University. There are a whole raft of issues in the Zonqor case - environmental destruction, the donation of prime agricultural land for a project that could have been implemented in many other places, and the possible institution of a competitor for our local university. But it is the strength of the argument in favour of a necessary competitor for the University of Malta that puts this scandal, somewhat loosely, into the category of the fifth deadly sin, that of envy. The sixth chapter deals with the story of the Café Premier. A scandal that brings together a coffee shop and many millions of euros cannot but conform with gluttony, the sixth deadly sin. The seventh deadly sin is wrath and the seventh chapter of this book does fall roughly into this category for it deals with Media Today. Dr Sammut is somewhat biased on this subject, as he himself admits, but once he does so, he outlines the way that Media Today with its choleric tone, appears to comfort a scandal-beset government and give it assistance in its need, not always with reciprocation, as the fourth chapter of this book shows all too well.

This then is the underlying and complex structure of this latest work by Dr Sammut albeit there are other chapters in this book. For once Dr Sammut concludes with his exposition of the deadly sins besetting our country at the moment, he takes a look at ghosts of scandals yet to come. The final chapter of this book consists of a beautifully written exposition of the importance of good government.

The final word about this book is not about its content and its structure, but about its superb prose. Dr Sammut is undoubtedly one of the finest writers of contemporary but literary Maltese. Any lover of literature reading this book will certainly relish the wonderful language of Dr Sammut, even if the content does not appeal to him, and the adroit thematic structure leaves him cold. As in his previous work, L-Aqwa fl-Ewropa, Dr Sammut has done a public service, not just by explaining complex scandals in his limpidly elegant language, but he has arguably done a greater one by writing such a stylistically excellent composition in his native language. Nobody who reads this book can fail to appreciate the qualities of integrity and literary refinement that Dr Sammut must have inherited from his father. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

 

Joseph Anthony Debono holds multiple degrees in History and Classics. He also has a strong academic background in philosophy and literature


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