The Malta Independent 29 September 2022, Thursday
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Two more August book reviews

Mark A. Sammut Sassi Sunday, 14 August 2022, 06:52 Last update: about 3 months ago

It’s August, and whereas I’m still writing on politics in the Nationalist Party daily, here I want to prolong my vacation of sorts. Like last time, I want to present a book review. Well, actually two. One is about a silly-season novel; the other about a serious book on a man for all seasons.

 

Mark Camilleri: ‘Ġaħan fl-Aqwa Żmien’, Dar Camilleri, 2022, 192 pages; warning: 16+

Mark Camilleri has published a prudent, sagacious, sensible novel covered with a patina of deep thoughts about life (particularly life in Fgura).

It’s the story of a young programmer, “an only child with no siblings” (p. 13), who is troubled by serious issues of low self-esteem which, as in all smart psychological thrillers, stem from the way his mother treated him in his childhood and youth. The author’s genius lies in the fact that he overcame the temptation of attempting any kind of character development: at the end of the novel’s 10-year arc, the protagonist finds himself in exactly the same psychological spot where the story started from. Zero character development – so brilliant, so yuge!

Despite being unattractively fat and pathetically dim-witted, our programmer hero still succeeds in falling to the guile of an insanely sexy budding politician who needs him to build a website for her. His laziness and defeatist attitude lead him from one misadventure to another, until he has a brush with the law as the sexy politician’s website is on his name and he’s uploading illegal stuff on her behalf.

In a bizarre turn of events, the IT company he works for is contracted by the police to help with an investigation, and while going through data, on a hard-disk he discovers that the sexy politician has had an affair with the biggest big shot in Maltese business. He then delivers the information to porn publisher Mark Camilleri (yes, Cervantes-like, the author appears as a character in his own novel) in exchange for a promise to have his poems published.

Since Camilleri’s lawyer told him “to write that any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental”, we obviously have no choice but to reject the ridiculous suggestion that the allusion to an affair between the fattest of fat cats and the sexiest of sexy politicians is not even remotely related to the legal battle Camilleri is currently waging in real life against a straitlaced female Labour politician.

You get to learn a great deal of useful stuff from such novels. For instance, it’s peppered with delicate pornographic moments that include the programmer licking the politician’s backside orifice (not just metaphorically but also literally) and the spreading of Nutella on the sphincter muscle of an OnlyFans model the protagonist self-gratifies to. Actually, faeces and the role of defecation in sexuality are referred to a few times, probably earning this novel an accolade for this laudable, most edifying literary achievement. I mean, given the dearth of local icky novels, Camilleri offers us hope for the future.

The reader is also regaled with profound philosophical contemplation on Fgura (a whole chapter is devoted to this locality), the judiciary (described by the narrator as sanctimonious clowns), crypto currency and Immanuel Mifsud’s luxuriant poems. The narrator claims that Immanuel Mifsud’s poems are the best strategy for seducing damsels out of everyday distress. “The luxuriant symmetry / Of thy floating gracefulness,” anyone? A thousand apologies. I meant, “I start to think my blood is getting sick, / I start to think you don’t love me anymore, / I start to think I’ll even forget how to smile, / I start to think that my eyes will soon melt’. That’s how you seduce the females of the species.

Anyway, let’s not digress. This Ġaħan novel somehow reminds me of the 1977 Italian erotic political novel Porci con le ali [Pigs with Wings], the diary of two adolescents who discover sex and left-wing politics, written à quatre mains, as it were, by a psychiatrist and an extreme-left journalist. Then again, Ġaħan fl-Aqwa Żmien almost seems like the novel a rejected nerdy adolescent would write to win back the object of his lust. As the novel seems like a paean to “Madame Nuxellina”, who knows what really lies beneath the surface.

The novel’s most admirable feature, however, is the consideration that although the author has long claimed he suffers from autism, his astute understanding of human nature and folly would seem to suggest otherwise. For instance, consider Camilleri’s astute observation that throughout a five-decade-long career as ‘Professur tal-bigilla’, Dominic Fenech published only one book (pp. 186-187).

Bottom line: many stars... too many to reckon. And if you belong to that grouping in the Nationalist Party’s inner circle that’s counting on Mark Camilleri to convince thousands of voters to vote for your party, then rest assured that your hopes are well-grounded. After all, the abundance of four-lettered profanities that cheer up the novel making it such a pleasure to read, will most definitely persuade undecided voters to vote PN come next elections.

Yeah, and, having wings, pigs fly.

 

Albert Ganado:Ħajja Mhux tas-Soltu’, Klabb Kotba Maltin, 2020, xii+260 pages

Now for something completely different.

Albert Ganado’s Ħajja Mhux tas-Soltu is the transcript of a series of beautiful oral reminiscences by a topmost lawyer, man of culture and politician.

The book is edited by Dr Ganado’s son-in-law, Austin Sammut and Sergio Grech, whereas Joseph Schirò compiled the bibliography and Giovanni Bonello contributed the Preface. I think Judge Bonello aptly summed up the various facets of Albert Ganado’s persona when he writes that he admires Ganado (and his cousin Herbert) ‘għas-sens immens ta’ kultura, għall-patrijottiżmu, għall-prijoritajiet umanistiċi tagħhom, għall-etika li kienet il-qies ta’ kull azzjoni’ (p. vii).

The book covers topics ranging from the personal (the Ganado family, the university years, the wedding) to the professional (the legal career, political involvement) to the “extra-curricular” (writing on Maltese history and on art, collecting Melitensia, philately, cartography... and the donations).

What immediately strikes you when you start reading this book is the clarity not only of thought (one would expect this from a refined legal mind) but also of language. The book is written in a beautiful Maltese, spoken as a top lawyer would speak it, that is to say marked by a constant awareness of the impact of each and every word on the listener. You can feel this quality throughout the entire book – and, if your inner radio receiver is set on the right frequency, you can intercept the invisible waves on which Dr Ganado transmits his thoughts.

Eventually this book will be translated into English (also because the material covered in the cartography section is world-class and deserves the widest possible audience) – but when that happens, you will realise that the Maltese version will be far more precious, because it captures the true essence of the protagonist.

Ganado was heavily involved in the Nationalist Party, enjoying Ġorġ Borg Olivier’s trust, but then had a serious quarrel with the Party, and ended up being expelled – even though, top Party officials kept engaging his professional services on a personal basis. The book offers first-hand material that either rectifies accounts in history books or else fills in gaps where knowledge of facts was not available. Dr Ganado would have made an excellent MP had he been elected, as he would have prepared his interventions with the highest degree of attention to detail, as he himself claims. But he also says that conceivably it was best that he never formed part of that august institution.

Whereas the chapters on politics and law perhaps have a local flavour, the chapter dedicated to cartography will decidedly attract the attention of a wider international audience. Not only because it offers background to the science of maps but also because it narrates, in a lively tone, the emotional states related to collecting.

I found this particularly fascinating, as collecting can have a dark side – but I have intuited that Dr Ganado consistently kept away from it (even though there must have been tense moments between him and his spouse, who understandably might have feared this dark side overcoming her husband). The philately and cartography chapters can be a sort of vade mecum for other collectors, as they’re written against an implied ethic of collecting – a manifestation of that ethic Giovanni Bonello referred to in the Preface.

Dr Ganado is a couple of years shy of a 100. This affords him the luxury of being forthright and this is one of the book’s qualities; you end up not only admiring but actually missing when you raise your head from its pages to return to everyday life.

Then again, it might not be a matter of age but a personal trait. Life has taught me that those who are endowed with a higher-than-average IQ are forthright in what they say but also frugal with words. It seems to me that higher intelligence is expressed in speaking the truth but in measured tones – the judicious combination of content and form.

But it could also be the “speak the truth in love” command of one of Paul’s epistles. You can extrapolate from somebody’s speech the culture they were brought up in – in the case of Dr Ganado’s generation, Catholic Christianity. But now, times have changed, and this book is another indicator of the shift. Measured tones are a thing of the past; likewise, being forthright.

This dictated rather than written autobiography makes a great read. Mostly because, as the journal of the Washington Map Society put it in 2019, Dr Ganado’s “life is far from ordinary and could better be described as phenomenal, interspersed with the remarkable” (quoted on p. 199).

Bottom line: five stars. Very readable, unquestionably informative, scores high on usefulness for an understanding of Malta and the Maltese. I find this last point extremely important, at least for us Maltese. Since we are few in number and our resources are limited, there aren’t many studies on how we think, how we act and how our way of life has evolved over the years. Yes, professional historians and sociologists work hard to provide such insights, but they’re few in number and – like the rest of us – have no more than 24 hours each day.

Books such as the one under review, serve to supply more material in our quest to understand ourselves. It is my opinion that it’s 10 times better to read one autobiography of a Maltese, preferably in Maltese, than 10 autobiographies of foreigners. In this country, we allow others to think for us. It’s high time we start thinking for ourselves. Reflecting on the “unusual life” of a fellow Maltese helps us better understand our own life and our predicament as a nation.

 

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