This month, Guze Stagno meets Maltese literature's torchbearer (not to mention his very own archrival), Immanuel Mifsud


It was Immanuel Mifsud's choice to be interviewed at the Addolorata cemetery. 'I want you to give me a tour of the Mizbla,' he quipped in his email, referring to the part of the cemetery where they used to bury heretics, non-Catholics and, in the early 1960's, Labourites. Since I have been working on a novel set in those years for some time, I agree with an almost necrophiliac enthusiasm.

As it happens, Mifsud arrives at the rendezvous five minutes late. In those five minutes, pacing in front of the main gate, I am the unwilling witness of a fight which breaks out between two men. 'Ja pufta!' one man calls the other as a funeral procession drives by. 'Pufta int!' yells the other while shaking his fists. Thankfully, things calm down just as I spot Immanuel's filthy Hyundai Atos approaching.

Kimika, his new book, will be published later this month. Saying it had a difficult gestation would be an understatement. Early in 2004 he was approached by Progress Press, who were interested in entering the field of Maltese language fiction. After a 'number of aborted meetings' he handed them half of the Kimika manuscript so they could judge whether the book was their piece of cake or not. He intentionally gave them those stories which he knew might be considered offensive. After a number of months they gave the green light, at which point Immanuel handed them the whole book. The Progress Press advisors gave the green light too, adding some words of caution. In the following weeks, the author produced the cover, had talks with the printers regarding the way he wanted the book to look, and October was set as the date of publication. The deadline was not reached so the launch was postponed to January, then February. However, on the same day that the mail shot was sent to guests for the launch, Progress realised the book could be too controversial and had second thoughts. Though it was agreed to keep everything under wraps, the story leaked out.

'I started being chased by journalists for comments regarding this whole charade,' Immanuel says as we walk past the gate. 'It was obvious that Progress were dragging their feet, and after many weeks of futile meetings, I asked to be released from the contract. At which point Klabb Kotba Maltin took over. Which way to the Mizbla, then?'

The Mizbla, which literally translated means 'rubbish dump' is situated in the right wing of the Addolorata. Before the Mintoff administration tore down the wall which used to separate it from the cemetery proper in the mid-70's, it could only be reached by a dusty road which snaked along the Addolorata's outer perimeter. When we get there we can't help commenting about the eeriness of the surroundings. I show him the grave of Guze Ellul Mercer, ex-Labour minister and one of Malta's literary giants who was unfortunate enough to die at the height of the interdett.

Standing there, Jesus' quote about prophets in their own country comes to mind.

Speaking of which, it is a rather well-known fact that Immanuel, who many regard as Malta's most important living writer, had to fund his first five books out of his own pocket. For him it meant 'a certain degree of hardship'. As we leave the Mizbla and amble around the graves I ask him whether he resents the fact that his material was overlooked by local publishers for so long. He takes it philosophically. 'I was taught that people learn better when they learn the hard way. What is important now is that there has been a turn for the better.'

The 'turn for the better' happened the day he received an email from Mark Vella, the maverick one-man show at Minima Publishing who in the previous months had published two books which others would have deemed unpublishable: Karl Schembri's Taht il-Kappa tax-Xemx and my very own Nbid ta' Kuljum. 'I thought that was far out!' Mifsud says. 'I recall inviting Mark to my place to discuss the publication of my manuscript.'

He is well aware that Minima played an important role in the mainstream success of L-Istejjer Strambi ta' Sara Sue Sammut, which hit the shelves towards the end of 2003. 'Being a young publisher, Mark Vella had a broad vision: pushing the writer and his work to the forefront. He believed his writers had to be more accessible; they had to make their presence felt in the media. It was not the proverbial 15 minutes of fame, but doing what foreign publishers had been doing for years: marketing the product.'

Why was Minima the first Maltese publishing house to market its books in such an aggressive manner? 'I think the reason why other writers, and their publishers, lacked our vision was because unlike us they weren't born in the age of mass communication. Basically, they published a work and that was that.'

These days, he gets recognised in the street, something which although flattering, can also be embarrassing. 'The last time it happened, I stopped for a Kinnie in a shabby bar, and the guy behind the counter told me: "Hey, you're the poet on the newspaper, right? So I have poets coming to my bar!"

Despite the fact that he has published four collections of poetry, Immanuel hates the word poet. Sometimes his students at the Junior College ask him to read his own poems in class, a request he doesn't meet. 'I suspect they do it out of sheer curiosity about me as a person rather than about the work itself.'

Are students interested in contemporary literature? 'Not very much. It's sad to say this, but that's the way I see it. When the Junior College opened its doors ten years ago, we had groups which were very active in the literary and artistic scene, and lecturing was quite a boost. Many of these students have since become journalists, writers, artists and interesting people. Regrettably, this type of student has become rare.'

I suggest that students' lack of interest in literature could be due to the old-fashioned material found in the syllabus.

'Look, there are many things involved in setting up the A-level syllabus, and something tells me there are a lot of vested interests. My colleagues and I discuss this regularly. Every so often we are asked to propose titles and we suggest books which the authorities tend to overlook. I think it is thanks to us that Alfred Buttigieg's controversial Ir-Rewwixta tal-Qassisin made it to the syllabus. Otherwise there would still be the usual Francis Ebejer stuff which I had studied for my A-Level twenty years ago. It's not just the A-Level syllabus which needs to be updated; I suspect that what is being taught at University needs to be brought up to date, too.'

As usually happens when two men meet, somewhere along the way the conversation turns to football. Mifsud supports Hibs. In a way you could say he is to the Peacocks what Diego Abbatantuono is to AC Milan. He still goes to the stadium on a regular basis and nowadays this is his only contact with his hometown and childhood friends. 'We have a legendary football club,' he grins. 'We are the only Maltese club which has never been relegated. We drew 0 - 0 against Bobby Charlton's Manchester United way back in 1967, and obtained a similar result against Real Madrid. Just think of that!'

And yet, I point out, Marsaxlokk have been trouncing them regularly for the past few seasons. Tee hee.

Does he dream of becoming Hibernians' honorary president? 'The club has one president, five committee members and six, yes six, honorary presidents. That's the Paolite way of doing things. I would be honoured to be honorary something, also because I presume it would mean free tickets to the stadium. But that will never happen. I'm neither a politician nor a businessman. I don't contribute anything towards the locality, so I don't see why I should become honorary president.'

Football, hooliganism in particular, featured in one of the stories from the Sara Sue collection. It was possibly the first time that a Maltese author wrote about something as ubiquitous as football. Why does he think writers in the old days never tackled subjects like youth subcultures? Why didn't anyone in the 1960's write a teddy boy novel, for example?

'Why do you ask me this question, Guz? I don't know. Maybe they were too highbrow to mingle with teddy boys. Or maybe, as you sometimes say, they really were born middle-aged.' Then with a hint of sarcasm he adds: 'Having said that, you have to give them credit for writing about our Paceville. At least they tried.'

And what about the revolutionary writers of the 60's? Isn't it galling that most of them remained silent during the 70's and 80's?
'Yes, and I wonder why. Maybe they had other preoccupations. And possibly because at the time one's own political allegiance was very important. Can you imagine a Labourite writer in the 1970's writing against the government? With poetry it was different. That's why I think 70's poetry was much more avant-garde than prose. You had Victor Fenech metaphorisng Mintoff as a savage Samurai, and Daniel Massa taking the mickey out of the Labour government. But prose was a different story!'

The 1980's are a fertile ground for his stories. His family, just like Sara Sue's, were staunch Nationalists, even though his father, a decorated ex-RMA soldier, was originally a Boffian. Were the 1980's that bad, or do Maltese artists try to invent their local version of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia just to make their youth appear more interesting?

'I've thought about this, you know. I ask myself whether in my writings about the 80's I over dramatised things. But I vividly remember the nauseating smell of tear gas and the PN club at Paola on fire. Not to mention more hideous things which for a time became the order of the day. What troubles me is that novelists shied away from treating those years, presumably because of censorship, fear or political allegiance. Now if I have been wrong about anything I've written, it should have been other people's job to point out mistakes. So far no one has done so. Another thing that troubles me about the 80's is that we still do not have serious, scholarly output on those years. Where are the historians for example?'

He thinks that the forte of this new crop of writers is that they write about today. 'If the country is getting sick with drugs, crime and corruption, let us say so. You know what? I don't want some young writer in 2020 accusing me of having closed an eye on what is happening right now. I'd feel humiliated.'

Kimika, published by KKM, will be in the shops at the end of June. Immanuel's website is www.immanuelmifsud.com. 

 Manic Magazine, June 2005