Immanuel Mifsud's latest literary contribution deals with a malaise which has been gnawing at the heart of society for decades: empty spaces, shallow values, impulsive violence. Is this the author's anger speaking, asks STANLEY BORG
Memory plays strange tricks. The 1970s now seem a more distant land than the 1960s. The Beatles feel closer to us than the Sex Pistols; flower power more real than glam rock. And which car has recently been revived? Not the coke-bottle 1970s version of the Cortina, but the Mini. Make love not war. Give peace a chance. Give it double chance, in case you're playing Monopoly. But let's take a brief journey through time.
It was during the 1950s tha terms such as 'lifestyle' were coined, to accomodate an affluent working class aspiring to the tastes and preferences of the middle class. Moreover, steady employment during and after the war had turned the working class into so many potent buyers, especially the housewife and the teenager identified as the principal target markets. Youth was officially formed accompanied by television and TV celebrity, the boom of the pop singer, the beginnings of the cold war and the detergent war. Nylon shirts and horror comics. Jeans and the cult of the bust: hundreds of angry young housewives discarding their utility clothes and bursting their way through, like Moses and a Red Sea rising in anticipation.
The 1960s were a culmination of all this and more, giving way to the '70s, which are best remembered by the songs penned at the time. Do you remember Chuck Berry's 'My Ding-a-ling', a kiddie song about his, erm, protrusion? And Peter Frampton's 'Show me the Way', with the nice wah-wah vocals? Not to mention Queen's 'We are the Champions', nice for sporting events but not much else. And Cliff Richards' 'We Don't Talk Anymore' - soppy; great for weeping in your beer though. All songs that suspended my belief in a divine force that governs the universe. Listening to them, my brain just stops. It stops. It sits down in a corner, hugs a teddy bear, and wishes it had a friend to play with.
We'll quickly rush through the 80s, the Pouting Age in which songs sound just like bad pick-up lines. To arrive at the '90s. X marks the '90s; a Generation X lost and embittered in frantic consumerism and theatrical shallowness. Looking back, it was just a play, a theatrical flop culminating in a tiriple zero anit-climax.
One difference between theatre and life is that life tends to go on, but plays come to an end. In fact, the ending of plays usually implies that some kind of fictional life will continue after the lights come up; the kind of life we have led in the first years of this new century. The world is going to the dogs and no one utters a single word. The only thing everyone keeps telling me is how busy they are. Busy is the new black, the age's must-have accessory. If you're not busy, you must be overlooked and failed.
And what's that strange, phallic totem you are holding? Your mobile? A mobile phone you mean? How coarse. How vile. Where's your PDA? Where's your electronic agenda? My phone takes photos, has a full internet browser and email, keeps my appointments, cooks and helps around the house.
Well, my phone just phones, the way a cook cooks, mum mums and a mate just gets drunk on your money and mates with your sister. Or with your girlfriend. this is the Generation Y. The Generation Why. This is the paperback age, where fast food is the only food for thought.
Conclusion: the only time that may ever be interesting is the future. And the only time worth living in is the past, about which we don't know as much as we think we do. Take the '70s, for instance: back to the first two lines of this article.
In the introduction to this new book, entitled L-Istejjer Strambi ta' Sara Sue Sammut, (The Strange Stories of Sara Sue Sammut), Immanuel Mifsud mentions two historical episodes that you could easily flip over at first sight. The first is about two transvestites, Marian and Wanda, who were reported to the police by prostitutes who apperently were losing out economically because of the former's presence. The second tells of police arresting a young man for drug possession, following a tip-off from the same young man's father.
What is remarkable is that the first incident was reported in a local newspaper dated January 11, 1979, whereas the young man was found guilty on November 18, 1978. This means farewell to our present idea that the starting point for similar phenomena is the '90s. A similar adieu to the illusion that these are one-off strange occurrences: hence the irony in the book's title.
Immanuel lifts his larger than average frame, fumbles around for a lighter, lights up, and we start discussing the book in more detail.
L-Istejjer Strambi ta' Sara Sue Sammut is a collection of short stories whose common theme is drugs, a variety of them. Significantly, a new hero glares at us from behind the rough language of the Maltese subculture that the author uses to effect. This new hero is not the modern anti-hero, nor the distracted one of post-modernism. Whereas these could still think before acting, Immanuel's characters have no agenda, drift from day to day, and have only one choice: to act or not to act. That is the question. But anyway, what was the question? They are characters who have lost all the traditional or moral values, including the urge to protest against injustice, a reaction that they deem as futile. Moreover, these 'heroes' frequently express themselves through violent impulses; a factor mirrored on the book's front cover, the design of which includes the words Brigate Rosse scribbled in black.
Is it the same violence that accompanied the angry young man's boredom in the '60s? I ask Immanuel.
'Not really,' he says, 'these characters are not bored; they live their lives to the full. The violence they express is of the same type that is innate, or was socially cultivated in us from birth.' I question Immanuel on his characteristic of writing about people who live, and up to a certain point, survive on the edge. It is a Maltese characaterstic that we are, both physically and politically, on the periphery. In the '80s, we were on the brink of a civil war. In the late '90s and today, we are on the verge of joining, or not joining, the European Union.
'The edge is always at the centre of our preoccupations, and vice versa. Still, in the end, despite our peripheral status, we always arrive at some destination, which is not necessarily the same arrival point we had in the original plan.' He pauses. 'But then, I always had this uncomfortable and troubling relationship with this country. That is why, from time to time, I travel. I have to, both because it is a means of escape, and also because travel, for me, is the greatest source of inspiration.'
And you have to admit that Immanuel Mifsud is one of the most inspired exponents of contemporary Maltese literature. His fiction includes Stejjer ta' Nies Koroh (Stories of Ugly People), Il-Ktieb tas-Sibt Filghaxija (The Bookk of Saturday Evening) and Il-Ktieb tal-Mahbubin Midruba (The Book of Maimed Lovers). Among his poetry collections there are Fid-Dar ta' Clara (At Clara's House) and Il-Ktieb tar-Rih u l-Fjuri (The Book of Wind and Flowers). Not to mention his considerable contribution to experimental theatre.
L-Istejjer Strambi ta' Sara Sue Sammut is a very good book, and anyone who thinks on opposite binaries needs to re-evaluate their definition of the adjective 'good'. It may serve as an interesting Foucaultian exercise in an archaeological investigation of our more or less recent past. On second thoughts, dump the above auxiliary. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. While you're about it, you can also visit www.immanuelmifsud.com
Stanley Borg, The Times (Malta)16 November 2002
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