Tuesday 07 February 2023

A capital tale

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

As I closed the last page of Wayne Flask’s brilliant novel, Kapitali, I got that feeling one always gets at the end of a good book which captures realistic situations so well. You cannot stop thinking about it and you wish you hadn’t finished it. It leaves you wanting more, and you want to know what happens next.

Set in the real world of Maltese politics, spanning various administrations from Eddie’s PN to Sant’s short-lived Labour Government, the Gonzi years and up to Joseph’s bright and shiny PL, the book follows the careers of two budding politicians, one from each side, as they learn or are ‘taught’ the ropes of how to survive in the shark-infested waters as shadowy figures pull the strings. Nothing can be taken at face value, no one is who he seems, everyone has secrets, and at the root of it all, at the very essence of the intrigue and machinations, there is filthy lucre. Collusion, cover-ups and backhanders – in short, not very different from the headlines we read every day.

Flask paints a picture of a Malta which is so close to the bone of what we are living through at the moment that it makes you wonder whether he has clairvoyant powers or whether he is simply very astute at reading the signs and connecting all the dots. In fact, although the author wrote the first draft at the end of 2016 and finished the book in March of this year, real life events have caught up with the book, as we read of fuel smugglers and a murky criminal world which is too close for comfort. He describes outrageous permits for lavish high-rise developments in ODZ areas doled out without even a hint of a blush as the PA board goes through the motions of trying to convince an increasingly skeptical public that everything is above board. Occasionally it turns down a development permit, to make things look kosher. Fact or fiction? You tell me.

Wayne Flask is also incredibly talented at sketching characters with surgeon-like precision whom you instantly recognize; the young ambitious politicians, the holier-than-thou Old Guard who have a warped sense of morality, and those big businessmen who lurk just outside of the main picture who somehow always manage to survive: we all know people like them. I don’t want to give too much away as I really believe everyone should read this book, but let me just say that what he gets so perfectly exact is the ruthless ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality which is perhaps a byproduct of being an island state where resources are limited and being in Government, or even close to the seat of power, means you wield an unbelievable amount of clout which infiltrates everything. None of this is new, of course; we have always known how the wheels of power work in this country, and the cynical, blase’ attitude many have towards corruption.

But Kapitali forces us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, to snap us out of our denial and come to terms with an inconvenient truth. If we really want to be honest with ourselves then we also need to admit that the different layers and degrees of corruption which exist here are able to exist because so many help to nudge it along. There are many in the wings who are just as culpable, all of whom are somehow profitting, whether indirectly or directly, from unsavoury earnings but who try to act like it has nothing to do with them.

The intertwining threads of its narrative also force us to acknowledge something which definitely will not be accepted by many people: that when in power, both the Labour and Nationalist parties behave exactly in the same way when it comes to cronyism, nepotism and the way they deal with Big Business, which is the real power behind the throne. It’s a zero sum game and the pot of gold at the end of the electoral rainbow is the jackpot they are both scrambling to reach. Indeed, the book cover has been printed in two versions, one stamped with a blue circle and the other, a red circle. A visual metaphor, if one was ever needed, that what we are dealing with is two sides of the same coin.

Of course, there will be those who will hotly deny this, maintaining that “things were never this bad”, while on the other side of the fence there will be those dredging up all sorts of examples to prove that yes, indeed they were.

More and more I find it best to tune all this white noise out of my consciousness, as the diehards fighting their corner of the political patch tend to cancel each other’s arguments out anyway. Admitting that one’s political party has failed to live up to its promise and in fact has done the complete opposite of what it said it would do, is a hard pill to swallow for many people, because it dents their sense of self (apart from the fact that admitting that one was wrong is not easy to begin with, even on mundane matters, let alone politics).

And so where does this leave us? Do we accept the inevitability that things will never change because it suits so many (even, sometimes, those who profess to be upset by it) for the ‘system’ to remain intact? Shall we continue to go along with the illusion that an alternation of power every so often means that the scales will eventually balance themselves out (we get to put all “our” people in the most influential, crucial positions for five years, and then when it’s your turn, you can do the same)? Or is it just a case of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem which seems too difficult to overcome, so it’s just easier to shrug and go back to our own lives?

The answer is probably a combination of all of these. It takes a lot of energy and stamina to keep opposing what is unjust and wrong without being worn down and battered until one becomes numb with fatigue. Add to that the sheer deluge of information coming at the public from all sides: from the politicians, from those who protest, from the media and even from one’s own social network; information which is sometimes skewed, sometimes amplified, sometimes riddled with hidden and not so hidden agendas. Perhaps that is what is the most exhausting – trying to sift through the extremes of those who see absolutely nothing wrong, ever, at any time with the country, and those who persistently want to see Malta through a thick fog of black cloud and doom.

We need to set aside the dramatic hyperbole, but equally, let us leave aside the unrealistic rose-tinted glasses. There is much which needs to be changed and fixed, especially within institutions where there are serious shortcomings, but unless we are prepared to meet each other halfway, the diehards will just keep on drowning out each other’s voices, and those who are fatigued will just keep switching off.

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