Kull gżira dgħajsa.
In-nies ta’ fuqha jbaħħru
bla qatt ma jaslu.
Every island is a boat.
The people on board sail on
never to arrive.
One of the salient threads running through the poetics and literary criticism of Oliver Friggieri, the institutional Maltese poet per antonomasia, is his tireless preoccupation with the tension between stability and change, idleness and voyage. Indirectly applied to his homeland, Malta is identified in the above haiku as a stationary boat, in a ‘fixed flux’ symptomatic of the passengers’ deeply-rooted collective malaise: that of a permanent, inexorable sensation of anticlimax, as the part-Latin, part-Semitic society struggles to pursue its desire to sail on into the promised waters of the future. The metaphor of a craft lost at sea is poignant for an ultra-Catholic micro-nation which, in 2011, has just approved the introduction of the right to divorce following a consultative referendum (hailed as a major victory despite going through by only 52.67 %), retains the colonial George Cross on its national flag, and still widely considers its native tongue as a ‘kitchen language’, to such an extent that the University of Malta has recently renewed a rule that forbids its students from sitting their examinations in any language other than English (except for those related to degrees in Maltese or foreign languages).
Elementary psychology would indeed contend that, before the islands can begin to row themselves out of the whirlpool and steer the rudder in a chosen direction, the first fundamental step would be to carry out a self-searching état des lieux, taking stock and thereby coming to grips with their own condition and situation. Self-acceptance, even of the most prudent type, has never been much of an idiosyncratic Maltese virtue. Take a (very powerful) magnifying glass, zoom into the globe a good ten thousand percent or so, and somewhere behind the letter M, the main island of the archipelago will appear as a (not-so-) big fish, with its tail up, its mouth open, and its eye looking up toward Sicily and the toes of continental Europe. Like Friggieri’s rickety boat, the fish does not seem to be going anywhere, as if holding itself back from the need to settle into and blossom out of its own scales and skin. Judging by the proportions of its abdomen, the big fish could perhaps be better seen as a whale, which in turn offers itself as an accurate biblical symbol: in 1968, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s coining of ‘the Jonah complex’ based itself on the Old Testament character who, too frightened to accept and perform his mission to preach to the peoples of Nineveh, fled 180º to Jaffa in order to sail to Tarshish, only to be thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a whale, finding refuge in the tenderness of its belly. Comfortably trapped inside its own soft tummy and in no rush to find its way out and face its destiny, Maltese society could well be suffering from the same fear of ‘self-actualisation’ as defined by Maslow (the refusal to be what one essentially is, and trace out one’s own path accordingly).2
Post-independence Maltese authors have been well aware of their country’s entrapment in this complex, that is, of the population’s difficulty in accepting itself as a Mediterranean people, as much culturally Christian European as North African or Semitic, as the local language and ethnology instantly reveal to the passing visitor. Modern and contemporary Maltese literature, and poetry in particular, have attempted to lead the first expeditions out of the cetacean’s belly, and continue to do so. During the late 1960s and early 70s, theMoviment Qawmien Letterarju (MQL, ‘Movement for the Revival/Promotion of Literature)3, a broad, eclectic crowd of Maltese writers, took the first energetic steps towards overcoming the profound identity crisis that had quickly set in following the advent of self-government. This initial épanouissement or ‘flowering’ was double-edged: not only did authors such as Friggieri, Mario Azzopardi, Victor Fenech, Albert Marshall and Achille Mizzi seek to shatter the rusty shackles of colonialism in their writing – which they did successfully –, but they were a lot more concerned with leaving behind the late Romantic muse, steeped in gratuitous Catholic patriotism and the anti-Moslem sentiment of authors such as Dun Karm (still considered the ‘national poet’ to this day). The break with the past was never complete – “more evolution than revolution”, as Friggieri himself, perhaps the most Romantic and formalist of the new wave, pointed out4–, and the outburst of the MQL was relatively short-lived, quickly becoming an institution in itself (and in some aspects remaining rather colonial, with its committees, secretaries and treasurers).
Nevertheless, Maltese poetry did experience a highly generous import of literary currents from the continent, with Azzopardi explicitly declaring in the inaugural 1967 issue of the MQL’s own organ Il-Polz (‘The Pulse’, ironically printed at the ‘Empire Press’) the need for Malta to place itself on the international literary map.5 Briffa’s assertion of the paradox whereby “the writers of the Sixties modelled their literary output on Anglo-American sources” (2007: 16) is perhaps exaggerated, as several authors, including Azzopardi and Mizzi, looked for inspiration to the poetries of Eastern Europe (Mizzi was an avid translator of Pushkin), Marshall to the symbology of the Indian subcontinent, and Fenech to the classicalkigo-based haikus of Japan. In essence, these writers carried Maltese poetry away from schoolbook provincialism and into the international sentiment of modernism, the post-WW2 recognition of our species as an exhausted humanity, populated with tenets that appeared to run contrary to the general local mood of political liberation. Central to these modernising efforts are poems such as Identità (‘Identity’), Bettieħa (‘Melon’) and Xjenza(‘Science’) by Achille Mizzi6, who whilst remaining deeply and explicitly religious, ventured wholeheartedly into Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, tracing in his poem Déjà Vu a diachronic voyage across defining moments of human experience, from the caves of Altamira to the mushroom cloud above Hiroshima, toward a communion with a divine, all-encompassing world soul. At the same time, the local element was never too far, albeit portrayed with a tongue-firmly-in-cheek stance, such as in Azzopardi’s Ritratti quddiem Caffè Première (‘Pictures at the Caffè Première’, where the MQL’s literary gatherings often took place), in which pigeons foul a monument to Queen Victoria. Later in the same year of publication of this poem in the anthology Antenni (1968)7, during an arts festival at Valletta’s Manoel Theatre, the MQL was to encounter its first major face-off with the Establishment, which accused Azzopardi, Fenech, Daniel Massa and a handful of fellow authors of penning ‘anti-patriotic’ and ‘sexually explicit’ poems; as narrated by Briffa, “[w]hen the authors decided, nevertheless, to read their works as planned, the Manoel Theatre was patrolled by plain-clothes policemen to make sure that the controversial works were deleted from the evening’s repertory.” (2007: 41).
Fast-forward to 2011, and the Establishment continues to stamp its heavy-footed authority over the literary production of contemporary Maltese authors, or at least tries to: the national Attorney-General recently appealed against the acquittal in court of Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri, who the police had accused of respectively writing and publishing the “obscene” short story Li Tkisser Sewwi (‘Repair what you Break’), the scathingly parodical and explicit monologue of a perverse Maltese macho, in the student newspaper Ir-Realtà.8The real danger, as exclaimed by Vella Gera in a press interview following his acquittal9, is not the censorship imposed from above, but that of the self-censorship certain authors may feel cornered into by such forces. Nevertheless, as oblivious as Malta’s irjus kbar (‘big heads’, i.e. the most politically influential) may be to what does and does not constitute art and fiction, let alone the ongoing developments of its own literature, whether mainstream or peripheral, the so-called ‘next wave’ of contemporary authors continues somewhat in the same vein as the ‘new wave’, variably building on the legacy left by the MQL, albeit with a much sharper attentiveness to Malta’s Jonah-like condition.10 Time will tell just how indebted the ‘next wave’ are to the ‘new wave’, although the collective intellectual and creative desire to stretch beyond the provincial belly of the whale remains an innermost preoccupation of the new poetics, sought no doubt with an ever-renewed vigour and urgency. In this second épanouissement of modern Maltese literature, to varying degrees, the authors evince a full understanding of the need to foster a planetary sense of place without extricating their roots from the local soil. If world literature, as defined by Vinay Dharwadker in his Cosmopolitan Geographies11, is “a montage of overlapping maps in motion”, the new Maltese writers have consciously furthered the shift from insularity to the acute awareness of forming part of a multi-dimensional global jigsaw where the laws of cause and effect stretch far beyond the static notion of nation state.
Beyond the proliferation of literary events and publications advertising themselves as ‘imqarba’ (‘naughty’) – a reflection not so much of a live bookish community struggling to expand its own limits of mind-set and imagination, but more of the need to challenge the general public’s perception of local literature as innocently bland and outdated (a prejudice better understood when one realises that Romantic poetry still constitutes the bulk of core texts in the school syllabus, and that the Qawsalla anthology consulted by pupils bears the national flag on the front cover) –, the necessary audacity professed by contemporary Maltese literature can be seen as a two-fold reaction to the society’s protracted Jonah complex. The first fold is inward-looking, as writers actively re-examine and interrogate the recent past (the legacy left by the transition to an independent nation) and more so the present, not shy to stir the spotlight toward the pressures holding Malta back from self-actualisation, and therefore the acceptance of herself and of the natural direction she should take. From Vella Gera’s novel L-Antipodi (‘Antipodes’; a Bildungsroman documenting an altar-boy’s conversion before, during and after his experience at the Woodstock festival), through the short stories of Pierre J. Mejlak such as Ir-Riħ tal-Bidla (‘The Wind of Change’) and Dar ix-Xogħol (‘The House of Work’), to Clare Azzopardi’s theatre play L-Interdett taħt is-Sodda (‘The Interdict beneath the Bed’, the first literary work to expressly tackle one of the darker episodes of modern Maltese history, when Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi – the uncle of the current prime minister– excluded all members of the socialist party from the rites of the Church), today’s Maltese writing freely scrutinises the obsession with parochial politics and the widespread desire to remain at an ideological standstill in the face of necessary social change, and strives to keep the readers aware of the fact that history can easily repeat itself in deceptively different forms. The second emancipatory fold is outward-looking, seeking to re-bridge links with the Eastern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean, that is, to a vital element of Maltese identity all too often negated by those wishing to believe that their culture “has always been, and will always be, essentially European” (despite the more than evident Semitic substrate shaping the basis of their mother tongue).
This second, outward-looking fold is more the domain of contemporary Maltese poetry than of prose and the theatre, and it was precisely the phrase just quoted, taken from the May 2004 issue of the magazine Malta This Month, which spurred Adrian Grima to compose the cheekily-rhymed poem Essenzjalment, taken from his second Maltese collection Rakkmu(‘Embroidery’):
Malta is essentially European
and the Maltese are essentially European.
The Mediterranean is a basin of water
and I think I know where it essentially comes from.
The words I speak are essentially Maltese
and you could say they constantly come out of my mouth,
and although they’re not all essentially European,
whenever I am away from Malta
everyone tells me ‘how sweet’,
for perhaps they don’t always sound
I’m starting to think that maybe I’m not truly Maltese.
And you too, I think you’d better have a good check.12
Other poems from Grima’s Rakkmu that have a pinch at Malta’s fantasised identity are less directly comical and much more biting, the product of a highly critical and lyrical consciousness: B’Idejna (‘With our Hands’), for example, takes a sarcastic blow at the daily 8 o’clock singing of Dun Karm’s national anthem at school (“Our anthem, I discover each time / is played to remind me that I am what I am, / that I wear this sun-coloured skin / and this garigue-coloured mind”), whilst Malta Ħanina (‘Merciful Malta’), dedicated to eight Iraqi refugees forced to go through bureaucratic hell in Malta, describes the island as “a pimple that never healed” (“ponta li ma fieqet qatt”).
Grima, a researcher of Mediterranean literature and an industrious cultural and human rights activist, is one of the leading figures responsible for opening Maltese poetic discourse out towards the Arab world (a process which has been ongoing for around a decade, culminating in the most recent edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival13, with seven of the invited writers hailing from Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Tunisia, all hotbeds of the Arab Spring). A prominent example is Ramallaħ –the leading poem providing the title and central leitmotif of the collection Rakkmu–, which recreates the story of a mother sitting and weaving outside her home in Nablus, shot repeatedly by a passing Israeli soldier for no apparent reason, with no subsequent explanation given by the authorities.14 In this and many other committed poems, Grima employs the narrative strategy of ‘complicity’, whereby fresh, direct observation of events and phenomena on the part of the poet is replaced by the intimate exchange of intuition and experience with a member of the community in focus. In the case of Ramallaħ, the murdered protagonist happens to be the mother of a dancer of the Palestinian group El-Funoun, invited by Grima and Inizjamed to give a performance in Malta in 2004.
Even before the publication of Id-Demm Nieżel bħax-Xita (‘Blood Falls Like Rain’, co-edited by Grima)15, an anthology of prose and poetry published in solidarity with the people of Gaza following January 2009’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’, a number of other Maltese poets had turned their attention to the ordeals of ordinary Palestianians, among them Norbert Bugeja, Maria Grech Ganado, Roderick Mallia and Walid Nabhan. Demm, awarded second prize in the national book awards, brings together the energetic contributions of a good fifteen local authors, and in the absence of non-academic literary journals published on the islands, would rightly be considered the broadest and most recent showpiece of contemporary Maltese verse. Rather auspiciously, three of those contributing poets are Azzopardi, Fenech and Mizzi, veterans of the MQL still going strong and far from couching on their laurels, and more than content to follow the direction led by the rising generation.
Guardian and Telegraph reporter Karl Schembri, the other co-editor of Demm presently stationed in Gaza, is another important voice in this current, injecting the immediacy of journalism into hard-hitting, emotionally charged verse of angry yet unfailingly cordial empathy. Għalik, sur President (‘For you, Mr President’) is a quick-paced poem placed in the mouth of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, as he hurls his shoe towards George Bush during a Baghdad press conference; Jenin 3, dedicated to an anonymous “Samir” whose mother’s remains are in the process of being “trampled over by armoured trucks”, is of such scathing compassion as to come close to resonating with absurd sarcasm. Where Schembri leaves room for the autobiographical, it tends to be tied in with the collective, as illustrated by his touchstone poem Biljett Miftuħ (‘Open Ticket’)16, in a solemnly straightforward timbre where Walt Whitman meets the late Mahmoud Darwish. Journeying among unspecific sceneries and encounters but taking his homeland along with him – here the simile of island as boat returns, this time mobile17 – Schembri lists of a number of characters he may have met along the way with slight, yet sufficient, detail about their stories: “I know a Japanese guy who’s bike’s been nicked. / I know a Libyan travelling with no passport / who works in a quarry. / I know a girl in Kosovo / who plays the caved-in carcass of a piano.” Some lines before this, looking back towards home, the poet offers an accurate expression of the discomfort of not a few bible-bashed Maltese:
Now listen to the bells taking the piss
reminder of the hour in an eternal day
the promise of a drop of quietude
from the incense that invades our throats each day.
Standing on my church’s parvis, I reject
the bibles foisted on me through the years
the gilded tabernacles on the altars
which are locked tight by keys of human fears.
For the ever-restless Immanuel Mifsud, a poet who takes almost full advantage of the quintessentially physical nature of the Maltese language, the true bible is something much closer to home, written not in lead or ink but in the fluids of the body. The following short poem Bibbja (‘Bible’) –perhaps the most sensual of blasphemies – recently appeared inBateau Noir, a bilingual collection with parallel translations in French18, containing several texts which were yet to appear published in the original Maltese.
Allow me to read this bible you wrote for me
in the opening between your legs that pull me inside,
pressing me like a vice for me never to leave.
There is a bible written in there, written
in blood, in tears of love, in sweat –
your sweat, my sweat – in sperm.
I have added my chapter to this bible,
to read the poems written inside it,
to chew on the images, to feel them in my mouth.19
Although Mifsud pours most of his creative energy into prose and drama, he is well-known at home and abroad as an at once critical and nostalgic travel poet, no doubt spurred on in part by the claustrophobia of life in Malta (albeit the importance given to particularity of place does occasionally emerge in poems dedicated to specific Maltese locations). Having figuratively thrown his passport – and all it symbolises – into the sea in an early poem20, Mifsud sets out to document, in loose modern-toned hendecasyllables, the distantly personal and closely foreign thoughts and experiences from his itinerant voyages across the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and beyond. The empathy conveyed for the victims of not-so-faraway conflicts is subtler yet sorer than in much of the verse of Grima, Schembri and others, as is the case of the prose poem Larinġa (‘Orange’)21 – in which the fates and fears of two housewives, Jael from Israel and Nadwa from Palestine, are described as two halves of the same orange –, and more so in several of the poems that make up the ‘Ftit weraq minn… / A few leaves from…’ series forming the 2005 bilingual collection km, written in or after places such as Auschwitz, Prague and Bosnia.
On his return from each flight, it would seem, when Mifsud sets his foot once more on il-Blata (‘the Rock’), Friggieri’s rickety boat or the ‘big fish or whale’ that is Malta, the feeling of restlessness all but dissipates. Whether or not Maltese society is steadily sailing or swimming on into the future –that is, into itself, into its self-acceptance and actualisation–, the journey is too slow for Mifsud’s liking, and his penning of a convinced cynical despondency becomes almost inevitable. Judging from the poem below, written on the occasion of registering his firstborn son, once out of the cetacean’s belly, it would seem better for Jonah to simply continue fleeing. Although not the most encouraging of messages for the next generation, the poem reflects an intricate netting of uneasiness from which the unending sense of disappointment and anticlimax can find no way out.
Nikol Mifsud, Maltese Citizen
Nikol, today you became a citizen of the Republic.
I gave them your name for them to bestow a number
that they’ll know you by till you dry up.
Nikol, don’t love this Republic;
teach it to look upon you with total respect.
And when it wearies you as it’s wearied me,
find the first craft on the water’s surface
and sail away without once looking back.22
1. Friggieri, Oliver, 2001. Il-kliem li tgħidlek qalbek (Malta: Mireva).
2. Maslow, Abraham Harold, 1968. Toward a Psychology of Being (New York: D. Van Nostrand).
3. A brief and useful overview of this Movement is provided by Briffa, Charles, 2007. New Wave Literature in Malta (Malta Ministry for Tourism and Culture).
4. Apud Briffa 2007: 16.
5. Apud Briffa 2007: 31.
6. Collected and edited by Toni Cortis in Mizzi, Achille, 1993. Poeżiji 1963-1989 (Malta: Mireva).
7. Azzopardi, Mario; Camilleri, J.J.; Fenech, Victor & Mahoney, Raymond, 1968. Antenni(Malta: self-published).
8. See Adrian Grima’s essay Dark Sides, published in Issue 37 of Transcript.
9. “We could win a thousand court cases, but if an artist getting ready to write begins to censure himself –morally, not aesthetically–, then this verdict means nothing. Every artist needs to overcome the fight with the self first.” From the second video here.
10. The term ‘next wave’ is used by Briffa in the conclusion of his cited monograph (2007: 58). 11. In his introductory presentation of contemporary Maltese poetry in the online US magazine The Drunken Boat (2007), Adrian Grima indicates Henry Holland’s short poetry collection L-Artist tat-Trapiż (1996) as the work that marks the beginning of this ‘next’ new wave.
12. Dharwadker, Vinay, ed., 2001. Cosmopolitan Geographies: new locations in literature and culture (London: Routledge).
12. Grima, Adrian, 2006. Rakkmu (Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin). Translated by Antoine Cassar. The Maltese rhyme in -ew (Ewropew – European, ħlew – sweetness, tassew – truly, sew – good, proper; the last three words derive from Arabic) would be difficult to replicate without adding to the meaning of the original.
13. The programme of the MML Festival, organised by Inizjamed in conjunction with Literature Across Frontiers, is available athttp://www.inizjamed.org/mediterranean_literature_festival_11.htm.
14. The sixth stanza of Ramallaħ, reproduced in the introductory pages of Rakkmu so as to set the tone for the book, has been translated by Maria Grech Ganado as follows, successfully retaining the rhythm of the original: “And you tell me a story / of a mother embroidering / on the porch of her home; / and the shots that came raining / without their explaining / and the distracted dance / of her daughter in trance / and her mother embroidered by guns. / ‘No pretence. No apology. No explanation.’ ” The full translation is available at http://www.thedrunkenboat.com/grima.html.
15. Schembri, Karl & Grima, Adrian, eds., 2009. Id-Demm Nieżel bħax-Xita (Malta: Edizzjoni Skarta). http://skarta.org/id-demm_niezel_bhax-xita.htm
16. Jenin 3 and Open Ticket can be read in Albert Gatt’s English translation on Poeticanet.
17. “My island sails along the currents / snuggles against the whir of planes / and lies to rest before me / on the sill of open train windows.”
18. Mifsud, Immanuel, 2011. Bateau Noir, with French translations by Nadia Mifsud and Catherine Camilleri (Malta: Edizzjonijiet Emmadelezio).
19. Translated by Antoine Cassar.
20. “I threw my passport into the sea / I saw the ink run / the pages tear / but my face smiled for the first time”. Passaport, taken from Mifsud, Immanuel, 1998. Fid-Dar ta’ Clara(Malta: self-published). Translation by Antoine Cassar.
21. Published in both Id-Demm Nieżel bħax-Xita and Bateau Noir, and online on the website of the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts.
22. Published in Grima, Adrian, ed., 2007. Tibża’ xejn jekk tibda x-xita (Malta: Edizzjoni Skarta). http://skarta.org/tibza_xejn.htm