The Malta Independent 4 June 2020, Thursday

Shadows in Penumbra

Monday, 20 June 2016, 14:22 Last update: about 5 years ago

Vincent Vella

Shadows in Penumbra is Lillian Sciberras' latest publication. Better known for her poetry (Kessidra: Versi taż-Żmien Maħrub) and short stories (Happenstance: Tales of Circumstance), this time round Lillian has written a novel which is still suffused with elements that permeate her previous writings: how our lives are marked by circumstances which at first glance appear to have come about through pure chance; the walls of memory within which we are destined, some would say condemned, to live; and the poignancy that fleeting time adds to our lives.

The book starts off with a dream.

Zachary Thorne, the book's protagonist, finds himself trapped inside a maze. His disorientation is made worse by the descending fog. Finally, as he staggers out, he brushes by a stranger and then picks up a notebook, a manuscript, written in a language which he cannot make out, even if it seems familiar. The labyrinth is a favourite symbol with Jorge Luis Borges who makes a relatively short, but important, appearance in the story. Once inside a maze, it becomes very hard to conceptualize the overall layout. Moreover, as successive dead ends are encountered and discarded, one is presented with alternatives routes which, however, lead to the same place. And at the end of it all, is the exit where one eventually ends up - the only way out or are there others?      

The dream sets the tone; the tale takes off immediately after Linda, the narrator, and now a middle-aged librarian, tells us how Zachary Thorne had crept into her life several years before she was born. Back in 1938, the Englishman and her father, who owned a small bazaar in St Julian's where the family lived, struck up a friendship which was to last for decades as it widened out to include both men's families.

When we first meet Zachary Thorne in 1938, he is a young naval officer from London. He comes across as an affable, decent man of considerable charm. During the war, he is recalled to England and carries out a number of mysterious intelligence missions. This training was later to stand him in good stead. Besides being a man of action, Thorne has "a love for the world of learning", specializing in Spanish and Hispanic studies. Once discharged from the Navy, he becomes a librarian at the University of London where he honed the skills that make a sleuth out of every librarian worth his salt. The narrator remarks that, very likely, it was his enthusiasm which he passed on to her when she was still a child that started her on her career.

We are now in 1965. As is to be expected, every time Thorne is on one of his frequent visits to Malta, he makes his way to the National Library in Valletta. It is during one of these forays that he has his fateful encounter with Chevalier Calleja, one of those lovable, if slightly eccentric, characters that haunt the reading room. The Chevalier introduces him to Juan Bautista Azopardo, the intrepid privateer from Senglea who led a most colourful life and contributed in no small way to Argentina's fight for independence and where he is revered as a hero and has a street named after him. Zachary is intrigued ...

This meeting triggers off the string of intricate incidents that makes up the mystery thriller element in the novel. Zachary, still on the Azopardo trail, traces his diary from Cueta, where the sailor turned commander spent some time as a prisoner, and procures it for the University of London. Almost concurrently, some papers by the the social philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who was closely associated with the University of London, turn up in Argentina. The Argentinians are willing to exchange the papers for other documents which are of comparable interest to their country - like the Azopardi diary, for instance. And off goes Zachary to Buenos Aires to preside over the deal and to meet Jorge Luis Borges no less, now director of the National Library of Argentina.

It is five years after this episode that ... but I think I have better stop here. Suffice it to say that Zachary gets ever more deeply immersed in the mystery surrounding the theft of a puzzling manuscript (titillatingly intimated to be Borges' aborted novel) and two precious documents. Who stole the three pieces of work and were they all taken by the same hand? Over this scenario looms the dark shadow of a sinister stranger. It's all very absorbing, as we witness the effect that these events have on the characters in the book over time. Why has the young, debonair officer we meet at the start been so marked as to come so dangerously close to losing the trust of his only daughter - the beautiful Miranda, fitting daughter to this Prospero? What's more, the narrator, as close as ever to the family, is also drawn into the web of intrigue and mystery.

What's so enthralling about this novel is the marrying of two elements: that of the mystery thriller with the lyrical commentary, steeped in compassion and sensitivity, so evident in Sciberras' other writings, documenting the flows and ebbs of the human condition, or what the writer here calls the seasons of life, which the numerous characters experience over the 50 years covered in the book. These two elements grow together naturally, like a couple of pleached trees, the one supporting the other. Not a facile undertaking, but Lillian pulls it off admirably.

Cleverly, the writer's employment of the timeline in the novel - not always linear, but which, at times, moves back and forth - evokes the ways that memory works or, perhaps even more appropriate here, the stepping out of the light of "certainty" into the penumbra of doubt peopled by shadows we are not always so sure about. New facets of episodes long past are reassessed and reinterpreted as each layer is removed and new knowledge and intuition come into play. We thus seem to be getting closer to the core ...  or not? We often expect that, as we journey on, at some point life will come up with the answers, but such is not always the case.

This is a very rich, evocative novel touched throughout with human warmth coupled with a keen eye for detail. This comes through whether Lillian is describing one of the numerous characters of the novel or the many locations that the tale transports us to. I love her portraits of Francis, the narrator's father, who runs the Lucky Bazaar or Patri Grabiel from the Augustinian church in Paceville. But, besides such homely characters, we also get others who are more off-beat, even exotic, such as il-Barun, St Julian's own resident hobo; Augustus Svensson and Ludovico di Monfalcone. And the same goes for locations. The St Julian's of the narrator's childhood, as when it was still a quiet fishing village, a holiday retreat, with no clubs, restaurants or high-rise buildings, comes to life again. The reading room at the National Library, with its "smell of unanswered questions" turns into a place of magic.

All these elements, and others, interlace (that's the word) to render Shadows in Penumbra a compelling, enjoyable read that carries the reader along. The book itself is highly finished and attractive, a pleasure to hold and leaf through.


Shadows in Penumbra

Lillian Sciberras

Horizons, 181 pages


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