by Gillian Bartolo
I am finishing off this piece after watching two very explicit discussions about sex abuse, and in particular paedophilia, on the popular discussion programme Xarabank. Now I am sure that many people found the contents shocking but the Broadcasting Authority clearly thought the subject was important enough to be aired without censorship. Not so it seems one of our foremost printers Progress Press, who having published leading national writer Immanuel Mifsud’s book “Kimika,” in Maltese, then decided not to distribute it because some reviewer had found its contents too scabrous. Yet anyone who reads widely in English will tell you that hetero- and homosexual sex is described with the same kind of explicitness in any number of European and American literary works. Was the fact that Mifsud’s book is in Maltese, the problem?
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is remorseless in its brutal portrayal of aspects of Malta, so often hidden and denied. I am thinking in particular of two of the stories: Sonia and Zerafa. The first is about a 15-year-old girl, and traces her inexorable decline from romantic teenager, amid the seedy squalor of her father’s bar, to drug-dependent prostitute, and worse. The second tale I find almost unbearably cruel and incredibly painful to read. It is about orphaned Zerafa – the use of his surname adds to his dehumanisation – who is sexually abused as a child by his uncle, physically abused by his teacher at school, mishandled by psychiatrists and – in his search for love – sucked into a ghastly downward spiral of sado-masochistic homosexual encounters, till he finally discovers his origins and goes berserk.
The Black Night of the Cory Shearwaters is written like a long haunting poem, the piercing shriek of the birds, like a hundred crying babies, as they climb the cliffs of Ta’ Cenc, becoming a symbol of human pain and guilt. Five lonely characters arrive separately on a moonless night and are confronted by their demons, including memories of an abortion and an unconsummated marriage.
It is amazing that the same author is able to write a light, humorous piece about a menopausal male trying to recapture his youth. I also enjoyed Angela, Jane and Lina, about three women in love with men unwilling to commit, including a priest and a married man.
Immanuel is a very soft-spoken man, who says quite controversial things in exactly the same laconic way he says everything else. I asked him where he got his stories.
“Sonia” was inspired by a case reported in the papers a few years ago about a young recovering drug addict who died after an overdose and was dumped in the sea by her boyfriend. “The setting is based on a bar in Valletta that I used to frequent, populated by unemployed Arabs or ones illegally employed, around whom hovered Maltese prostitutes. I never spoke to the people there. I simply observed them. Obviously Sonia is a romanticised version of these women and so is the ‘good Arab’, both are reminiscent of the French Truffaut film Les Amants du Pont Neuf. He stresses “I have no qualms about romanticising them. I think even junkies have romantic streaks. And I don’t like stereotyping people. It’s not a coincidence that the good guy in Sonia’s life is an Arab. I did that purposely, so as not to create the good Maltese/bad Arab division. As for the junkies, I know ex- heroin addicts and they had their moments even when they were shooting up.”
I ask him then if he has a special sympathy for people from a working class background because of his own origins. He says he does but he doesn’t romanticise them. So it seems to me, that there is a time to romanticise as in the case of Sonia and a time not to, as in the case of Zerafa.
We turn to the latter story. “Zerafa’s habit of eating pencils and rubbers came from a classmate of mine in primary school. Before reading about the cases of paedophilia at St Joseph’s Home for boys, I was not sure whether my story was credible or not. After reading about it I had no more doubts.” Then he says something that shows how unconventional he is. “I was interested in the fact that some victims of paedophilia feel ashamed when they grow up partly because they realise they enjoyed the sex they had with their abusers. I like to write about things experienced, but I also have an agenda to break stereotypes such as ‘the innocent child’. We like to see the paedophile as 100 per cent bad but how can we judge a person with a disorder he cannot control? In the two film productions of what is most disturbing Lolita is that the lovemaking by the older men is caring and tender. Of course there is no tenderness in Zerafa. He’s an angry man, raging against the way his family, peers, teachers abused him, and he vents his anger on his victims. But even he has ambivalent feelings towards his uncle, who made love tenderly – and when Zerafa is attracted to his friend’s son he tries to be kind to him and buys him presents.”
I ask him about the lyrical “Il-Lejl Iswed tac-Cief” (The Black Night of the Cory Shearwaters) and he tells me that you hear the screech of Cory Shearwaters on the sides of the Ta’ Cenc Cliffs, where the story is set, in Xlendi and even Ghar Hasan. Apparently they are marine birds here between May and September, who go out fishing by day, but on moonless nights, at sundown, they flock in their hundreds to the cliffs. “Their shriek resembles the plaintive cry of a baby and is very disturbing. A friend told me about this and an ornithologist took me there. The characters are all made up though.” One of the most moving stories is about a woman who feels remorseful about having had an abortion. Again Immanuel refuses to conform. “People condemn abortion in public here. I don’t have an opinion on the subject. I just tried to imagine how a woman who has an abortion feels.”
I point out that his women characters ring very true and are often protagonists. “Women are a part of me. I read a lot of books by women writers, mainly sociological studies – not so much fiction – to understand what they feel. I am obsessed with what I write being as near the truth as possible. So before I make a woman character do something I ask myself if that would be authentic, and I check. For example, to discover women’s perspective on housewifery and failed marriages, I read a collection of essays called The Bitch in the House. Basically I’m interested in lives I cannot live.
“I also ask women friends how they feel about this and that and listen to them. Most of my friends are women.” His story on male menopause was written on commission in 2003 for a collection of 25 stories published by the EU in Italy when it had the presidency. “In that story I like the young woman who bosses her father around.”
I once read an interview with Graham Greene where he said that a good writer must have “a sliver of ice in his heart” – that is he must observe events clinically, however emotional the situation is, to be able to reproduce it accurately in his work. “Do you have a sliver of ice in your heart?” I ask. He smiles. “Yes, I feel guilty about it sometimes, but I do. I am inquisitive and will do anything for a story...”
Do people recognize themselves in your stories? “I don’t really write about my friends, although once I realized I had been unconsciously inspired by someone and told her I would censor the bit that was her, but she said it was OK. I am sometimes inspired by things they say, but I don’t consciously use my friends, because I think it’s easy to do that and not really creative. I think writing’s a gift and I don’t think I have to experience something to write about it. A good writer does his research to make sure his story is authentic.”
I ask Immanuel about his clash with Progress Press. “Progress Press had signed a contract to publish the book, but backed out after the book had been printed, and after months of keeping me hanging on. The reason given: some unnamed people in the company had said it was obscene. I was intrigued by the way this prudery came from a newspaper like The Times, which had been in the forefront of the Yes campaign for Europe, where stories like mine have been published for centuries. The Times’ resistance reflects Maltese attitudes – we don’t admit that these unsavoury things happen in Malta. We still believe in our own myths. How long have we been saying that we are not racist, but now it’s in our face, and that’s why it’s so shocking.”
Immanuel digs deep and exposes the underbelly of society, and that’s what makes him disturbing, but if you like to be challenged, and if you enjoy really good literature in Maltese about Malta beyond the myths, this is the book for you.
Kimika is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin and can be found in all leading bookshops.
The Malta Independent on Sunday, 19/2/2006