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Maltese literature with a view

Malta Independent Wednesday, 7 May 2014, 17:22 Last update: about 11 years ago

You and I are well aware of the fact that Maltese is a small language for a small nation with a great history. Why do you write in Maltese (a language understood by very few) when you can write equally well in English and Italian (and perhaps increase your reading public)?

In the case of literary research and criticism I write in the three languages, but poetry and fiction require a medium much closer to my innermost self. In scientific works words convey knowledge, conclusions, and are subject to rigorous symmetry, whereas creativity is actually the end result of experience, which in itself is somehow inexpressible. I write criticism regularly in English and Italian, but my native tongue is somehow much more than a speech habit to me. I think my fascination with the Maltese language has something to do with my upbringing, and particularly with the way I remember my late mother, who only knew Maltese. I prefer Maltese mainly out of loyalty to her, and consequently to whole generations.      


What is the relevance of a small nation’s literature within a large continent that is economically well advanced?

If a writer seeks to narrate what being  human entails, then nationality is rather unimportant, and perhaps does not play any role at all, if not only to the extent of determining historical, contingent features, regarding when, where, how... A small nation’s literature is therefore significant if it eventually grows into another type of interpretation of life thus far transcending the specific confines of time and place. In writing novels, I have incessantly found it intriguing to depict humanity in terms of living on a tiny island. I do hope I managed to portray my conviction that man is actually an island. That implies the need of gaps being bridged, and perhaps literature is a means towards that end.  


 Most of your characters live in a small world but they think universally. Does belonging to a small country have any effect on an author’s perception of the world?

Yes, and forcefully so. This is a fundamental point. Smallness and completeness, if co-existent, provide a unique standpoint. I am mostly concerned with major themes, such as God’s relationship with the individual, the sense of suffering, and death, whether it is defeat or mystery, humiliation or the birth of glory. In dealing with these motives, I have inadvertently found myself indulging in highly compromising political issues. This has happened to me most in writing Fil-Parlament ma Jikbrux Fjuri (1986), in which I supposedly embarked on a political novel but found myself, or else my protagonist, facing ultimate truths. The novel has attracted significant attention, even on the international political level, but I just wanted to narrate the unpretentious reaction of an average citizen to a prevailing political situation in Malta under Dom Mintoff’s rule. A troubled period was meant to be developed into a paradigm of existence itself.

You are completely right. Small characters can think in terms of universals, and that is simply due to the fact that humans, though to a lesser degree than animals, do transcend nationality. In novels I seek to depart from a given historical situation in order to arrive at a universal one, common to all any time anywhere.     


Your recent novels give a feeling of the frailty of existence. Is this related to the fact that they come from a small country?

The historical origins of a writer do play a role in the making of his/her way of thinking. Perhaps the restrictions typical of life on a small country do determine one’s own thinking about existence. I must confess I became aware of the frailty of existence much before becoming aware of the exceptional smallness of Malta. My earliest perceptions of Malta are due to my reading and to the fact that imagination still existed in the late fifties and early sixties. I consider myself an offspring of that era and my recent novels ‘have taught me’ that the best way to understand the present is to unearth the past. This is at least what I have been striving to do since Gizimin li Qatt ma Jiftah.    


 I know that you are very much concerned with the present. So why do you choose the past for your recent novels?

I hope I managed to express what average people in Malta think at the present. In novels I have repeatedly, unwittingly, found it quite effective to deal with the present through the depiction of past eras. In discovering the past the present almost intervened. I myself have learned that life is actually cyclic, rhythmic, repetitive. In depicting situations which are seemingly obsolete, folkloristic, it occurred to me that I was actually dealing with life in the early years of the new millennium. Perhaps my traditional characters were not even Maltese. Timeless and spaceless: I do keep my fingers crossed that my novels portray this. We belong to a planet, not to a country, and perhaps the planet belongs to being in its entirety. Just imagine what it feels like to look at the universe through the peeping hole of a small island. A novel can try to do that. 


In fact you show a great sense of history. Is it your way of saying that history is judging our present?

That is the best way of putting it. In a highly sophisticated era, when technology has practically erased the need to be surprised and inquisitive (for instance, children do not ask questions as much as their parents used to do), happiness itself has become a problem. Its quest is a paramount concern, and it seems that various political issues will soon have to be dealt with from this perspective. The human temperament seems to have moved much ahead since Sartre, and in the direction indicated by Sartre. I myself went through this tunnel in the late sixties, while writing L-Istramb. I think Sartre was an atheist who firmly believed in God. His disappointment just derives from the fact that God has, since time immemorial, decided to remain silent. It is another theme which obsesses me...

     Technology is diametrically opposed to the traditional way of being, but it cannot provide what simple rustic life used to guarantee. This sounds paradoxical, but tourism and holidaymaking are expressions of this need to go back to simplicity. Hence childhood, imagination and simple life can all combine in constructing an apparently historical novel actually concerned with the present.      


In your last novels you tend to juxtapose, even by implication, the value of tradition with the relevance of the new. Do you believe that tradition leads to change?

The revolution led by my generation (the late sixties, mainly 1968) has left various effects, and not all of them are edifying. The sixties have perhaps led to the belief that one could do without tradition. Our fathers and mothers were considered to be obsolete, outdated, irrelevant. Uprooting is at the core of the crisis we are going through here and now.

In my early novels – I understand now – the present is depicted as perhaps the only point of reference. In the meantime research has taught me the relevance of history, and this has led me to deal with reality in the terms you are rightly identifying. Only tradition, if adequately evaluated, can lead towards renewal.

Tradition can be applied to the present critically, namely in terms of constants and variables. A novel can combine the depiction of reality and the evaluation of what is retainable and what has to be discarded. I am mainly concerned with interpreting the importance of constants through the presentation of chosen variables.  


In most of your novels heroes are found among the common people. I think your hero is very often a Mediterranean hero. Please comment.

Indeed, my characters are thoughtful, sentimental, deeply rooted in the soil of their  origin, largely determined by their sense of belonging. They relate to the sea as much as they do to the land. Perhaps they descended from fish. Water stands for mobility, perpetual change, whereas the land embodies steadfastness, certitude. Can tradition and post-modernism co-exist in a small island like Malta? They actually should, or else both are extinct. Apart from research, fiction has proved to me to e an efficient way of handling such politically loaded themes in a pleasant, thought provoking manner. A novel may be the best form for proposing the results of research in a literary manner accessible to all. Research provides data, and fiction remoulds everything into significance. I seek to write in a style equally simple, concise and pleasant.

A Mediterranean writer can never forget that both classical literature and religion have somehow constituted the main points of reference for so many subsequent generations. As I hope to have amply shown in my novels and poetry, Regionality is the best criterion for a writer to bridge the gap between inward looking nationalism and distraught, vague globalism. Since the citizen still exists, a literary character has to have that dimension as well. From that static point he can then depart on the trip of his discoveries. This is at least how I have tried to construct characters and plots in my novels.


At the same time your main character is frequently a social misfit in search of a psychological solution as a possibility for existence. How do you view the relationship between character and reality?

Reality is both experience and the perception of such experience. A novelist does not pretend to depict truth, but to propose a point of view, an aspect. In my seven novels I have made full use of characters who can personify features of reality. Most of them illustrate village life, since I am fully convinced that a country like Malta should never be fully urbanised. The problem of the relationship between the city and the village is perhaps at the core of all this. At least this is one of my main concerns in the writing of fiction. 


In one of your novels you depict very realistically the innocence of childhood in a nearby past. Is this an optical illusion of someone who is removed from an impression of a utopia?

It is indeed past reality, as retained in memory.  In reconstructing the late fifties and early seventies I found myself narrating a fable to my own self. Once, at the time of writing Gizimin li Qatt ma Jiftah, I went out of subject in one of my lectures to my students, and somehow  reconstructed an anecdote, quite common to me, but they were so surprised and somehow fascinated that they thought I was just inventing a tale. I was not. It then occurred to me that narrating the past may be equivalent to narrating a fable. It dawned on me that I could perhaps describe present life through a fanciful reconstruction of given past eras. This I hoped to have done in my subsequent novels.  


Friedrich Schlegel says: “all the novels of an author not infrequently belong together and are to a certain degree only one novel.” I tend to agree with this. What do you think? Do you see this unity in your work?

I fully agree. Since we only live once, we only write one poem (through numerous poems) and only construct one narrative (through various novels).  I am sure you can detect this unity much more than I can ever do.


It is in the nature of the novel to make the subjective, objective. Do you agree? 

It is indeed so. A novelist departs from a personal standpoint and plods his weary way ahead in search of that something, a thought, a sentiment, which is immediately acknowledged as being shared by all. Readers thus perceive that fiction is mainly a subtle collage of fragments of experience, immediate, mediate, and narration is an effort to put chaotic, ambiguous reality into shape. A novel to me is life viewed from a fixed point of view and reorganized, reconstructed. This is what actually distinguishes a novel from a news bulletin. Embarking on a novel has always meant to me a discreet, undetectable suspension of my daily routine since I was supposed to somehow recreate and reshape what is already there, created and shaped, but begging to be given significance. It involves going through a time warp.

Since studying structuralism, I have become convinced it necessarily provides a methodology in the fields of thinking, planning and writing fiction, or any other genre, after all.    


A distinctive feature of your fiction is the presence (I’m tempted to say “intrusion”) of philosophy as a kind of chorus analysing characters’ behaviour and motives. Is this technique (which I dare say is part of the techniques of the traditional Maltese novel) sufficient for your purpose of offering possibilities for human existence?

Characters in my novels are doers primarily because they are thinkers. They think whatever is inside and outside their self. Philosophical content is only primary matter still waiting to be transformed into a set of structural components, namely characterisation, dialogue, background, action, etc. A reader of such a novel will himself/herself take positions, judge and translate events into thoughts. Such technique is meant to remind that all humans are in their own way philosophers. Through experience, as evinced in my recent novels, I have concluded that the closer people get to nature, the more philosophical they become.

Urbanisation: well, it involves a necessary compromise with human nature itself, and there is a price to be paid for that. All efforts being done nowadays by people to rediscover nature are just indications that the environmental crisis is essentially human. A fish simply depends on water. I hope the theme of rediscovery of roots embodies all these concerns. Coming from a tiny island, I can hardly forget that the man-environment relationship is more crucial here than elsewhere.    


Do you think modern society encourages philosophical thinking?

It does not formally, but it actually resorts to it continuously, namely when it reacts to news, follows films and songs passionately, and feels the need to avail itself of the benefits of tourism, namely  discovering the unknown, seeking the countryside and historical places, all choices pertaining to the inquisitive, poetic dimension of our mind. A novel can best bestow solidity on all this.  


A strong religious element visibly structures your lyric poems (almost in the manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins). Is there any probability that your Catholic flavour becomes alien in the context of a modern European environment that is predominantly materialistic?

Modern Europe is post-religious, if not also anti-religious. In this sense, while being hugely indebted to the lay thought emanating from Illuminist France, we Europeans are at the moment missing a major lesson to be derived from Illuminism: wisdom means humility, and vice-versa. Now we are beholding the enormous advancement of technology, whereas we, the so-called members of Humanism, are failing miserably. As I firmly believe that a compromise between tradition and modernity is the only reasonable alternative to this impasse, I try to portray problems of a moral nature in terms of an equally democratic and responsible criterion. In any case, I find life without faith simply unbearable.  

It will be difficult to revive T.S. Eliot’s type of Neo-Humanism, but our stressful society cannot do without such a reawakening for too long. It may not be literature to spearhead it, since ours is not an eminently literary era, and it is perhaps post-literary, visual and virtual in most senses, but human needs, like all the needs of such colleagues as animals, will one day make their demands loud and clear. My works are an effort to hasten such a rediscovery of what has been indiscriminately lost is the process of modernisation.     

What I mean to say is that everything has to have roots, including our era which has made great efforts to erase them. Folly!  


The shape of your poems is traditional, which might be seen rather unadventurous coming from a poet who is the product of the sixties. Yet there is a lot of thematic exploration. Comment, please.

I have advocated modernisation in 1966 and afterwards, but I have always retained the normal forms of our metrical patterns. In this I believe to have been consonant with what modern Mediterranean poets, especially the Greeks and the Italians, have done. The Mediterranean has managed also to retain the ancient forms of poetry, thus at least providing a degree of verbal musicality. But even poets like Ted Hughes frequently retained the metrical forms of tradition.


Your major poetical works depict the main characteristics of the Maltese people. Why do you feel the need to define the nation today?

Malta, being equally complete and tiny, has to work hard and to somehow re-invent itself if it is to survive. Isolation could only mean isolation, whereas integration may eventually entail complete absorption, which in the case of such a small island-state may just mean annihilation. I do envisage this predicament, as I have repeatedly written in the Maltese and foreign press. Malta, a European Union member state, cannot forget it is an exception to the law of nature, though politics bypasses all this.  

Being Maltese still has to be defined today simply because the European Union has to adopt and modify its rules to the realities prevailing in countries which are not only islands, but also small and peripheral. Malta stands midway between Europe and Africa, and as a frontier country should be treated as such. Of course, I have sought to portray all this in my recent novels, and have also discussed it with the main political leaders of the country, but eventually the European Union itself will have to be convinced that there is more than one single Europe, and that a ‘city-state’ state like Malta demands special consideration.


In one of your public speeches (on 25th June 2008) you said: “The whole of Malta joined Europe, but we mustn’t allow the whole of Europe to become Malta.” Can you elaborate on this?

Malta, like all the smaller states within the EU, or outside it, like Iceland, need special considerations since their size is not normal or average, and this initial premise determines all else. Malta can afford to be selective in adopting measures which do not immediately suit its condition. A critical stand can be adopted whereby measures which are not affordable in tiny countries could be eliminated or modified accordingly. In the era of rapid, aggressive globalisation, the smaller countries can survive only through very special treatment.  


Your journalistic writings show you as a political thinker. I’m not going to ask you the age-old question of whether literature should be involved in politics, but I’d like to ask your opinion on when should literature stop being political.

Literature continuously influences politics, but this does not make a writer politician. Political literature can go a long way in leaving its impact on any parliament, but this also means that literature can never renounce to its fundamental call, namely to remind people of whatever transcends politics itself. This is not a difficult task; at least it has been quite obvious to me whenever I thought I had to resort to it. Literature should always be political, and that means that literature can transcend political issues whenever this is necessary. My political prose and poetry are meant to prove that life is much profounder than the antics of politics can ever suggest.   


Your literary criticism appears to be an integrating account of human consciousness and Maltese culture, and in this sense it is an educative process. What do you say?

Literary research, spread over a period of forty years, has mainly meant to me that I had to show to what extent European culture, mainly Italian, has been influential in the formative process of Maltese identity. It has thus been an effort to prove that literary production throughout various centuries has been an expression of the Maltese community’s sense of belonging to itself and of its urge to survive as such, in all its integrity. This relationship between literature and citizenship is peculiarly strong in the case of small states, and there is no doubt that the Maltese experience is an outstanding example of how salient features of communal living have enabled the island to grow into a state, now also being a member of the European Union.

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