FL-ISEM TAL-MISSIER (U TAL-IBEN)
by Albert Gatt
We begin at the endpoint. They - father and son - are at the cemetery. On his mother's grave, the soldier - that is, the father - sheds a tear.
The son is watching; he is always watching. And it is with shock that he registers the fact that the man of steel - that is, the father - is weeping. Mourning does that: it weathers steel and wears it thin; it cuts furrows through the thickest of hides to expose sinew and bone, offering glimpses of things we had thought were safely buried. It will have taken the author some time to come to terms with this, a few years in which, no doubt, he too will have had to bury some of his own, including the father whose large and heavy steps he - that is, the son - now finds himself re-treading, under the watchful gaze of his own son.
How to articulate that whose proper place we know to be below the surface? This, the work of memory and mourning, is sometimes called "confession", but the dangers of that word are flagged in the epigraph to this book: 'One can confess all one wants,' says HÃ©lÃ¨ne Cixous, 'the unconfessable remains unconfessed.' It is this impasse, perhaps, that has made Mifsud forego the luxury of a narrative told exclusively in the first person. In so doing, he has refused to allow this book to be placed within that genre of first-person narratives that usually go by the name of "memoir", and that jostle for space on the non-fiction bookshelves, somewhere between "history" and "autobiography."
Nor has Mifsud chosen to merely reproduce his father's war diary, the seed from which this book has germinated. Instead, what we are offered is a piece of writing (I can find no other term) whose place, if it existed, would be a liminal space at the boundaries of theory, fiction, poetry, diary and also, through Mifsud's constant use of the second person to address both his father as a son and his son as a father, a confession of a kind. Faced with this book's stubborn resistance to easy classifications, I found myself revisiting a reflection by JMG LeClezio: 'Poetry, novels, short stories are remarkable antiquities which no longer fool anyone, or hardly anyone. Poems, narratives â€“ what's the use of them? There is nothing but writing left.'
There is a very literal sense in which that last sentence applies to this book. Its starting point is the war diary that Mifsudâ€™s father kept as a recruit in the King's Own Malta Regiment, which the author had discovered by chance and found himself rereading, as he says in the preface, on the day of his father's funeral. The father's voice surfaces in the first part of this book in fragments of the writing that he left behind, bursts of laconic, factual English prose whose uniformed, male austerity sits oddly with its tumbling, unpunctuated enthusiasm for the army: 'The Instructor after he spoke to me and recognised that speaks English he told that I will be squad leader. From now on I started the army life.'
Here are the makings of a man. But the fragments of the diary of 'Mifsud il-Kikkra', bayonet in hand, are hardly the principal text of this meditation on masculinity or, to paraphrase de Beauvoir's classic phrase, on what it means to 'become Man'. Set off both typographically and stylistically, the extracts from the diary achieve the status of echoes of another voice interrupting Mifsudâ€™s own dialogues with his father and his son. It is not even the only other voice: the prose segues seamlessly into Susan Bordo's recollections of her dying father, Julia Kristeva's recollections of her son. Barely audible, Mifsud's own son occasionally speaks ('Kemm timxi stramb, Papinku!').
Perhaps it is inevitable that the Father, the old artificer, Logos and lawmaker, should ultimately emerge as the central figure in a work that seeks to come to terms with manhood. A central feature of Mifsud's memories of his own childhood is his father's constant admonishment to be a man, not to cry, to fight back. This is the conflict that makes a man a man, or so the myth of the Father would have it. That myth makes its presence strongly felt here, in the struggle to win a mother's love, the growing recognition that the Father is the man who got there first, the process that should ultimately lead to the Son identifying with the Lawgiver and finding his rightful place. 'Tghid bhalek se nibda nishaq taht gharqubi l-fjur ifuh waqt li nghid li nhobb il-ward taâ€™ Mejju?' But the myth is subverted, the Law broken: 'Kont niddizappuntak? Ingieghlek tidghi, ghid? Kont nezasperak ghax kont nibza' mid-dlam? Taf li ghadni nibza' mid-dlam s'issa? Taf? [...] Taf li ksirthom kollha l-kmandamenti tieghek?'
There is yet another, more important level on which this subversion of masculinity operates and that is the level of the text itself. This is a piece of writing that rescinds the traditional strictures of genre, the authorial authority and the monologue in favour of rich allusion, imagery, poetry, polyphony. Feminine writing? What were you thinking, Mifsud?
The final sections of the book contain some of its most moving passages, as Mifsud dwells on the death of his father, and on his own relationship with his son: 'Nitbissem iddizappuntat hekk kif narak tolfoq ghax gejt jien minflokha. Tolfoq ghax tahseb li telqitek. [...] Tolfoq ghax thoss it-toqol tal-Isem tal-Missier jaghfas fuqek, igieghlek iccedi.'
The struggle is renewed, the irony palpable. The profound discomfort of finding oneself in the role that one has sought to subvert can only be offset through the act of writing about it, through a father's confession. Our ultimate tragedy must be this: that we embark upon struggles whose course, already inscribed, remains unalterable. There remains only the work of mourning and renewal, through writing.
Malta Today, 11 October 2010
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