Immanuel Mifsud, one of the few local authors who manages to paint a true picture of Malta in the Nineties

by Mark Vella

In one of his more insightful critical contributions, Alfred Sant once remarked that a new Maltese literature could only appear by means of a generation of writers that had not experienced the traditional "closed" society. Pragmatic and demystifying, Sant's view recognizes the need of an "actual" literature, delving into society's contemporary realities and preoccupations, and correctly notices that, notwithstanding the merits of our best authors (particularly the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju group), our literary products are still overshadowed by a reticence characteristic of the past. Even if much Maltese literary art has reached standards which compare to those of countries with more advanced cultural traditions, it frequently stops short of the expectations of the modern reader: predictability of form and technique, stock situations and characters, a questioning and investigation muffled by traditional mores, religious guilt, and political allegiance. Symptoms characteristic of much local art production which continue to effect even budding artists whose experience is no longer of the kappillan's supremacy over the rubble wall village but of Saturday evening in a Paceville bar.

Immanuel Mifsud (b. 1967) seems to know much about the latter spatio-temporal concept, now firmly fixed in the nation's collective psyche and a leitmotif of much current literary fare (from Sammut's naive Paceville to Palma's infamous Overdose). Mifsud, however, performs no such acrobatics, and his aptly named Il-Ktieb tas-Sibt Filghaxija (1993), promotes him as the sharpest observer of Maltese society today: muted tones and short clipped sentences reveal life at its most ritualistic and monotonous, where the characters lose all identity in the humdrum urban sprawl and become prowlers in a night of virtual promises but little real fulfillment. "Bhas-Soltu", "Sibt wara Sibt...", the night ends in a silence of desperation and disillusion, augmented by the one sole certainty: that Saturday will soon be back again.

Mifsud probes the ground with composure, relaying the sensation without histrionics or poseur pseudo-philosophy but with a reeling reality effect: the clock ticking away "donnu japplawdi"; the compulsive actions of a chain-smoker; the mundane rituals of an unsatisfied couple preparing for their umpteenth pizza night. Reality, the real and actual one, is presented through an array of the commonest people - no class consciousness here, no hero or anti-hero: abstract and faceless individuals without individuality, from the couple and their agreed-on frigidity to the new society's scum of the earth: prostitutes, homosexuals and men simply seeking for some love. Mifsud's characters have had their slow development since Stejjer ta' Nies Koroh (1991), where the author unearths the new categories of suffering individuals, no longer fighting quixotically against a world that does not understand, but bearing themselves in a world which is the way it is. Mifsud is no moralist. Condemnation and omniscient stances are welcome absentees in a search for a truth, one of the many, which will probably never come out. Man is alone, and Malta's just realized.

Notwithstanding obvious limitations, Mifsud has the mettle of a responsible and coherent author. His cultured approach, reflected in the quotations that litter Il-Ktieb..., from Kundera to Octavio Paz and Saint-Exupery's poignant "C'est ne pas la peine...." is a sure guarantee for a literary product that is not alienated from contemporary reality and thought. Mifsud is no iconoclast, no Zeitgeist-maniac assuming artistic posterity for having chronicled the gizmos of a generation: he might be giving a valency to the X denoting today�s youth, but there is more to him. Most important of all, an essential lyric quality, an inheritance from the great moderns of the likes of Friggieri and Azzopardi, a world-weary notion of the intrinsics of the human condition. His technique is worth noting, too: not highbrow or inaccessible, it follows the Maltese kwadrettizmu tradition, where essential sketches of situations, feelings, states of mind relay an intensity which lingers in the mind. Mifsud does not tell stories: his works are indeed impressions, with the scarcest of plot (if any). Content as motivation of the form-stifled progress, still life, and nothing ever changes.

Mifsud, also involved in contemporary theatre, is slowly, and (thank heavens) humbly, establishing himself as a watershed in Maltese literature, especially in a period characterized by a dearth of sensible material, which sways to and fro from blatant imitation and sorrowful posturing to vacuous experimentation. He has impressively captured the sign of the times and all alone, like the characters, stages the updated version of the eternal re-run.

Stejjer ta' Nies Koroh and Il-Ktieb tas-Sibt Filghaxija are available in all leading bookstores. Immanuel Mifsud has also published drama pieces and poetry, the latter of which a sample is included in the latest Maltese poetry anthology edited by Oliver Friggieri.

Elegance Magazine, Spring 1997