As the accusations fly back and forth over the John Dalli scandal, and as the papers continue to debate whether the ultra conservative Tonio Borg will ever be able to survive the grilling by the more liberal EU Parliament to take Dalli’s place as EU Commissioner, my mind is still churning over the last few chapters of Is-Sriep regghu saru Velenuzi by Alex Vella Gera.
It is, perhaps, fitting that as I was finishing off this novel, the main character of which is one of those “Maltin ta’ Brussels” whose life happens to be peppered with all sorts of drama, in real life an equally incredible “you couldn’t make this stuff up” kind of drama was taking place.
Did Dalli really know what was going on, or should we believe his claim that he was once again the victim of a set-up by those who orchestrated events back in 2004, but this time possibly also involving the powerful tobacco lobby? I do not even dare voice an opinion on this – there are just too many loose ends and my feeling is that (like so many other scandals in this country), we will never really know the whole truth.
But back to the book.
Now that I’ve read the whole thing I have to revise my earlier impression that the plot of “Sriep” was going to be about the Mintoff era, for after the first few chapters the story leaps forward to 2005 and then to 2011, where it stays for the bulk of the book. We are only transported back to the attempted assassination against Mintoff in the penultimate chapter. This is where I have to mildly chide the rather misleading marketing strategy which played heavily on the Mintoff angle for publicity, and succeeded. Having said that, this does not mean that what happened in the 80s is not relevant, because again like in real life, the past has a way of worming itself into the behaviour and prejudices of the characters.
Noel, who has escaped the stifling atmosphere of this island for pastures anew in grey Brussels, is your typical 30-something Maltese guy who has traded job satisfaction for a rather tedious but extremely well-paid job as a translator. Alex Vella Gera, himself a Brussels translator, writes with assurance about the mindset of men like Noel, torn between wanting the lucrative pay cheque provided by the EU institutions, while still vaguely yearning for his native land. Noel’s identity crisis is exacerbated by his social background – brought up in an English speaking, Nationalist household, he first drifts to London where he ends up with a left-wing girlfriend, and for the first time starts to question the anti-Mintoff brainwashing he was immersed in as a child.
After the UK he settles in Brussels where the daily use of Maltese in his work continues to further throw him into personal confusion and even becomes the subject of contention when he moves back to Malta among English-speaking (rather superficial) acquaintances. The underlying language issue is a running thread throughout the book where Noel switches back and forth between the two languages both in his internal musings as well as in his conversations with others. It is a narrative trick which has never been used before (to my knowledge) but it perfectly captures the Malta of today where most of us code switch unthinkingly, depending on whom we are speaking to.
Whether deliberately or not, in Noel, the author has given us a character with whom it is difficult to have any sympathy. To put it bluntly, the guy simply has too many issues – the type of man who would raise alarm bells with most women who have any brain cells. Apart from his Maltese vs. English angst (which becomes rather exasperating at one point), there is his undisguised sneering at his fellow Maltese who (unlike him) lead a perfectly content life on the island and have absolutely no desire to emigrate. Unfortunately, this hits the nail on the head, because this misguided air of superiority is a trait I come across often in some people who have packed their bags and left.
What is the most off-putting about Noel however is his unresolved emotional baggage because of his father’s mysterious disappearance (his father was the man who was commissioned to kill Mintoff). In a nutshell, Noel is a brooding, stunted, immature individual who can only seem to relate to women as sex objects. After discussing the novel’s obsession with explicit sex scenes with a friend of mine, I have come to the conclusion that Vella Gera wants to pull the reader into the dark, lonely world which Noel inhabits. In this respect, the author has definitely managed to accurately portray with chilling detail what goes on in the minds of certain types of men – the type who are always mentally undressing every women they meet, and whose vivid imagination can lead them to interpret a young girl’s friendly smile, her make up and her tight skirt to mean that she is gagging for sex. (Here of course, I could not help but recall Vella Gera’s infamous Li Tkisser Sewwi story which had got him into so much trouble, and which featured a similar type of sexual predator).
Where the author excels is in his portrayal of the gradual escalation of tension between Noel and Frances. The domestic bickering between the couple is captured with a good ear for realistic dialogue as the two quarrel and nitpick on each other’s foibles the way men and women who are completely wrong for each other often do. The series of events which catapult the couple into a relationship that is doomed from the start are very true to life and probably happen all the time – Vella Gera has merely dissected them for us to examine them in detail to see how each path and fork in the road has resulted in one thing leading to another.
I am still undecided whether the Mintoff angle was really necessary, except perhaps to explain what made Noel into the ‘lost’ man he eventually became and to make us ponder whether the acts of political violence carried out in the 80s were actually pre-orchestrated by shadowy figures as some people continue to suggest.
There were a few details in the book which did not make sense, and left me with a nagging feeling of dis-satisfaction, but if I had to go into them here I would give away too much of the story.
On the whole, however, this is a well-crafted book which is very readable, and while it takes a peek into our political past, it also throws into sharp relief our national identity and what living in contemporary Malta is really like.