The Malta Independent 24 October 2018, Wednesday

Fiction for Everyday Life

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 31 December 2017, 08:45 Last update: about 11 months ago

Many people I know would say that fiction - by which I mean "good literature" (i.e., I do not have Dan Brown, Stephen King, etc, in mind) - is just a waste of time. Better read a self-help book, or a politician's or businessman's biography, or something technical, than read a (good) novel or poem. Better invest one's time in things that really happen(ed) rather than in fantasy.

Dismissing (good) fiction because of its perceived practical uselessness can lead to missed opportunities. Good literature, written by men of genius, can help in everyday life.


I might be easily accused of bias, being the son of an author. One of my fondest memories goes back to when I was the honorary secretary of the Council of Notaries and a cool colleague from Sliema told me how my father's Il-Gaġġa had changed his outlook on our country. But at home, my father rarely discussed literature. Most of the time he waxed lyrical about Mikiel Anton Vassalli, the French Revolution, and Napoleon. On literature, he would merely express unmotivated opinions, such as how much he loved Susan Sontag and Leonardo Sciascia, or that Achille Mizzi's poetry is world-standard and what a literary disappointment Immanuel Mifsud turned out to be.

So I think that my bias is minimal and my opinion on the usefulness of fiction based on other considerations.

Of the literature we studied at school in my time, I must admit I still haven't found any utility for Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum. But Robert Browning's Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came can be a useful companion to life, with its underlying theses that success only comes through failure, and that at times the end is the realisation of futility.

Given the amount of fake news doing the rounds these days, and staged TV shows such as Country X's Got Talent, reading good literature helps you see through the veil of falsehood. Brilliant authors help you empathise with the viewpoints and standpoints of others, and empathy allows you to weigh the truthfulness of what your eyes see. Literature is the real window to the soul, not the eyes.

To my mind, novels such as Saramago's (blasphemous) The Gospel According to Jesus Christ cast light on the paradoxical alliance between Good and Evil (what is which depends on your ideology and where your interests lie). The interpretation that the Portuguese Nobel Laureate's novel is a rehash of Marxist critique dawned on me one day while I was waiting in a foreign bank, and the advert on a poster caught my attention: a trade union had invested in an investment fund - socialism and capitalism had forged an (unholy?) alliance.

Andrea Camilleri's historical novels - though probably still maligned by high-brow Italian critics - are a veritable handbook on human psychology. La Mossa del Cavallo and Il Re di Girgenti in particular contain life lessons everybody should learn, on surviving unexpected, traumatic experiences and on surviving the irrationality of crowds.

Likewise Paul Auster's "psychoanalytical" novels, even though they are perhaps best avoided by "normal" people as their graphic description of identity loss can be disturbing. Then again, they might help those who have lost their path half-way through the dark forest to find it again. That said, they are novels to be treated with kid gloves, as they are like medicines and might have side effects.

The topmost obvious utility of novels is when authors employ allegory and satire. Not only do they offer an interpretative key to the world - consider as examples Orwell's Animal Farm and Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships more commonly known by its shortened title Gulliver's Travels - but they also teach you how to play the game without getting sued.

Garbiel García Márquez should be followed to achieve this last mentioned goal, particularly his literary creation (possibly the most important part of his legacy to humankind): the "fictitious" town of Macondo.

I think Gabo's model should be followed by journalists: they should create a "fictitious" country and then report about it. About the sale of Macondo's passports, say, or how a Minister and the chief aide to the Prime Minister, both of Macondo, opened secret accounts in non-cooperative jurisdictions to receive the rent of a small house on the outskirts of London and the profits from a recycling business in the Persian Gulf.

By resorting to "Macondo" - or whatever they want to call their "fictitious" country - journalists would hit two birds with one stone. They would take readers into their confidence, and they would defend themselves from this new fad of lawsuits opened in high-cost jurisdictions aimed at intimidating journalists into silence.

Our national poet wrote that the poet passes but his words remain. Indeed, the inheritance of authors lives on after their death. Their wisdom and wit, their observations and insights, their jokes and laments... survive for generations, if not centuries.

In civilised countries, their heirs continue to receive royalties. But in the Best Country in the Universe (which is having the Best Time Ever, by the way), that's not the case.

I was absolutely delighted to see Francis Ebejer's son receive on behalf of his late father the country's highest award. But that's where the inheritance ends in the Best Country in the Universe. The situation willed at the Public Library is that the heirs of deceased authors do not receive royalties on books loaned, unlike authors who are still alive. I'm not writing this because Mr Ebejer told me anything about the situation - I know it through personal experience.

It's another quirky decision of that professor of historical materialism and censorship laws who runs the Book Council, compliments of the Best Prime Minister in the Universe's expert knowledge of literature.

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction in everyday life.

A Happy New Year to all readers!

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