by Claire Bonello

There are some who might think that this article is out-of-place in an English language magazine which claims to be in touch with current reality. For isn't Maltese just a subject you put up with till secondary school level, swotting up on dun Karm's neverending poems while wondering what they have to do with anything? Why not go down the well-trodden path of the dimwits who insist that children should learn English rather than Maltese, because it is the latter which is their passport to the rest of the world and of the language spoken by a mere 400,000 people on an isolated rock? And then, there's that faux controversy about how much money the European Union spends on having official texts translated into Maltese (apparently the same cost as a cup of coffee per citizen - just to put things in perspective). And if you're trying to bolster the argument that Maltese is a dying, stagnant language why don't you get all agitated about those loan words from other languages which have been adapted by the local vernacular and have changed their spelling accordingly? Shudder in distatste at "mobajl" and "brejkdawn"? Finally you can deliver the killer blow to the Maltese language. State that there aren't any half-decent authors around, no contemporary Maltese literature and nothing interesting to read in the mother tongue.

You'd be wrong on all counts. Not only because Maltese is the language which binds us together, which is exclusively and distinctively ours. Not only because children are particularly suited to learning two, three or even more languages (at about the age of 10 months, a "window" of learning languages opens, and from then on children pick them up at an amazing rate). Not only because taking up words from other languages and making them your own is something which all other countries are partial to - look at the Italians with their carefree usage of "lo shopping" and "I VIP". But because Maltese literature is alive and well and available at local bookstores or even a mouse-click away on the net. And while up to 10 years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find many books which were written in a style which was not reminiscent of radio melodramas with star-crossed protagonists who were invariable called Inez and Alfredu, things have changed no end. You can now read books with realistic dialogue and interesting story-lines. Best of all, you can read them purely for entertainment or in order to pick out social themes and messages. Thankfully, though, the modern Maltese novel is not full of those cliched stereotypes which are pushing an agenda as obviously as political party secretaries; yet you'll come across characters and situations which are so well-described, you'll swear you've met them.

Take Guze Stagno's Nbid ta' Kuljum, for example. The book opens with the most hilarious, yet realistic description of a Maltese civil service department ever. Reading about the holy pictures adorning the computer of the office man who's found Christ, the eternal quest to be certified for some "leave", the resorting to "sick (leave)" when the certifying doctor refuses to cooperate, the petty office politics, you'll be thrown back to the last time you spent a couple of hours trying to unknot some bureaucratic tangle at a similar department. If you felt frustrated, it's a minor consolation to know that the fictitious (?) employees in Stagno's book feel just as contemptuous of the boss and their department. As the protagonists puts it, "Principal mazettu kap ta' ufficcju bazwi." Th erest of the book continues in a similar vein, with an amusing but true-to-life description of sex in a car (protagonist's bum bobbing up and down and visible through the windscreen) and a credible plot (if we ignore the rather abrupt ending). There isn't one line of dialogue which couldn't have been uttered by someone you know or heard. This is also the case with Stagno's other "rumanz pop", Xemx Wisq Sabiha. Stagno tries a little too hard to live up to the "enfant terrible" tag - he's prone to making self-aggrandizing statements wnad the image on his now abandoned website, has him in wife-beater vest and sporting a crew cut. Nevertheless a thumbs-up for knocking all the stuffiness out of Maltese novels and writing ones which naybody would want to read - even while whiling the time away at a civil service department.

Equally readable and perhaps more satirical is Karl Schembri's Il-Manifest tal-Killer. Starting off with the familiar premise of a phone-in radio programme where anybody can get to air his views, the reader can then gallop through the book where the mysterious, unidentified "Killer" conveyshis orders via the airwaves and the Internet. Look out for the tour guide who becomes a TV celebrity with a tug-at-the-heartstrings programme, the local obsession with the Eurovision Song contest, the violent police commissioner, disgraced judges - it's all very close to home. Readers can also amuse themselves wondering whether the characters named in Schembri's bok are inverse-homonyms of the names of real people. Why is the Leader of the Opposition Dr Wilfred Zarb? And the Prime Minister Duarte Fenech d'Amati?

Another Maltese author who displays an impish sense of humour is the inimitable Immanuel Mifsud. His Kimika is an addictive collection of short stories which range from the tragic to the perceptive to the comic. An example of the latter can be found in "Kumpanni ta' l-Ordni tal-Mertu" where his Dittu, Gizzy and David Damien Cachia are dead ringers for television presenters Peppi Azzopardi, "Tista' Tkun Int"'s Rachel Vella and Lou Bondi. (Mifsud denies it, but we can join the dots - read the hilarious description of Bondi's - sorry, Damien Cachia's "Satanic" scoop, and you'll see why). His tongue-in-cheek look at these personalities and their medium is really a very effective critique. But Mifsud's forte is his darker tales. There are quite a few of these in Kimika. Like the one about Sonia who is forced into prostitution and into the nether world of drug addiction. Her death is partially avenged, in some small way slaking our thirst for poetic justice - sometimes the only kind we get in this world. "Zerafa" is the darkest story of the lot. It could be called The Making of a Paedophile and it a is chillingly voyeuristic look at how an orphaned boy turns into a sadistic brute. The explicit descriptions of sexual scenes could find a place in a book of gay erotica, but Mifsud does not use sex for cheap thrills - his are "shock and awe" tactics, but only to shake us out of our stupor and prejudiced mind-sets. By the end of the story we are repelled by Zerafa, but we know what makes him what he is. And then there's Mifsud's Angela, Jane u Lina triptych - a story which shows us just how much the author knows about women. He knows how they love to be loved, how they canrevel in the thrill of sexual abandon, how they build up their lives around their children - and their men. He also knows about periods, about cellulite, sagging skin and drooping breasts and what growing older signfies for women. The women who people Mifsud's Kimika tend to be victims - of life, their fellow men and circumstances, but certain aspects of their lives will ring an uncomfortable note of recognition in the most successful, hard-as-nails career girl. Read it and see.

Other recently published Maltese books are Clare Azzopardi's Il-Linja l-Hadra - the literary equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting; and Lino Spiteri's Meta Jdellel il-Qamar - a string of short stories which are meticulously researched.

And you can get your fix of Maltese lit in another way these days. Many readers will have heard of Pierre J Mejlak's blog and his fascinating short stories. Fewer will have heardabout Kinnie and Twistees(Find it on Written by the avid blogger Jacques Zammit, this is where he wrties about the similarities and weird contradictions of life in Malta and abroad. Recently he's started writing his Folklor Urban Ghas-Seklu 21 series, where you 'll meet the hapless Momo, either sandwiched between a sweaty giant and a Swedish amazon's bounteous breasts or overdosing on coffee while studying. REad about our local Fantozzi (younger and cleverer perhaps), while downing Kinnie and Twistees. What could be more true-to-life and enjoyable? This is aeons away from Maltese literature of old. These are stories which we recognise because we are part of them - and which pitch us into the world of the pages we're reading.

Manic 38, November 2006