The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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Book review: The sad and gentle poet

Noel Grima Sunday, 27 August 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 11 months ago

Fejjaqtni int: Ruzar Briffa - u jien
Author: Paul P. Borg
Published: 2023
Pages: 466


This sympathetic and readable book comes from one of the most prolific authors in Maltese, with 30 titles under his name including novels like Bejn Mara u Qassis, Dal-lejl gie alla, It-tifel taht is-sodda, and, most recently, the terrible belgha te. Plus a whole library on Selmun where the author's grandparents lived.

In keeping with this rather autobiographical note, the author takes us back to his childhood in the outskirts of Birkirkara where this rather naughty boy went playing in the fields not noticing that someone with a truck had unloaded a whole load of drainage (such things happened in the past too). The boy rummaged in the grey matter and predictably got infected. His hair came off in lumps and he developed a rash all over his body.

And that was when he was taken to the doctor who specialised in skin diseases, Ruzar Briffa, who was very kind to the boy and cured him. Little did the boy know he was being cured by one of the foremost of Maltese poets. This book is thus a long thanksgiving for the gentleness extended to him by the doctor who did not seem to stop smoking in his face.

That connection being made, the rest of the book tells us about the life of the poet from his birth in Valletta, his studies in Malta and later in India, his first marriage and the death of his first wife, his child, then his second marriage and finally the cancer which killed him.

He was born in a numerous family where children were being born all the time and also dying all the time. So from early sorrow formed part of his life.

Of an extremely sensitive character he was more prone to sadness and solitary thought. Characteristically he expressed his thoughts and feelings in poems which he would write on any paper available, even shopping bills or doctor's receipts. In fact, after his death, his second wife had quite a job to track down as many poems as she could.

There are other books, one by Oliver Friggieri, which focus on his poetry in a structured way. This book gives us excerpts from the most known, the ones we know and remember from years back.

Like Madonna tad-Duluri, Wiehed biss, U l-kotra ghajtet: "Jien Maltija!", etc. there's a simplicity, a gentleness and a calmness running through the verses. Maltese in the poet's hands is not forced or twisted. It's simple as a mother speaking to her child.

He was always prone to negative thoughts and writes in one poem of committing suicide by jumping off Hastings Gardens wherever he had gone to study.

Yet he studied and specialised in treatment of skin diseases and he even went to India to study the treatment of leprosy.

One thing which I did not know about him is his extensive research into the treatment of disease at the time of the British colonial rule. Coming to think of it, this is a period which requires further investigation and appraisal.

The book is also appreciable for its description of middle class Malta in pre-war times and for its gentle portrayal of Ruzar's love for his second wife while he was battling cancer.


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