SARA SUE SAMMUT ET ALIA
by Maria Grech Ganado
In the Sunday Circle "Chat Room" (December 1), Mona Farrugia contributed an interesting write-up about Immanuel Mifsud and Guze' Stagno. Most of the article was devoted to Immanuel Mifsud, perhaps because Minima Publishers has just published his sixth book, L-Istejjer Strambi ta' Sara Sue Sammut, shortly after it had published the first of Stango's Inbid ta' Kuljum. Minima Publishers is providing a great and essential service in the literary field, by giving young and innovative writers a status platform and financial boost which is sorely needed.
I read Stagno's book before I met him. I enjoyed it thoroughly, seeing in it a realistic depiction of a greater number of our young people than we could like to admit, even to ourselves - people who, lost in a world they cannot make heads or tails of - opt for oblivion, cheap thrills and an acid humour which hurts even while it makes us laugh.
Some people have criticized the book for its use of foul language and lack of direction, two characteristics of this type of contemporary Everyman. I thought Stagno introduced his obscenities gradually and very cleverly as we come to understand his nameless protagonist more, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many of his anonymous readers must even have identified with him.
As for sense of direction, if it refers to the protagonist, it is the whole point of the book. From a literary point of view, however, the novel suffers when it becomes obvious towards the end that not only the protagonist, but also the author is bored by the whole thing and uses the deus ex machina contrivance to chop up the novel before it gets to a more technically acceptable end.
With Immanuel Misud, it is a totally different matter. I have known him well for over three years, and those who know me will attest to the fact that I am still after his (creative) blood at every possible opportunity. The fact is, I can't make him out! In my opinion he has written some of the best contemporary poetry, starting with 'Poezija lil Clara', and practically all the poems in Il-Ktieb tar-Rih u l-Fjuri.
For some strange reason I cannot fathom, I think of him as a poet, even though it is his prose which makes him an outstanding writer. His former books were a bit uneven, in that one would read an excellent story like 'Spag', for example (in Il-Ktieb tal-Mahbubin Midruba) alongside 'Id-Dnub li l-Kandidat ma Jridx Iqerr', a vastly inferior experiment in visual media technique (I'm sure there's a buzz word for this, but I'm afraid I'm pre-Generation X).
Now, in the same way that 2001's Rih u Fjuri demonstrated that he could sustain very good poetry throughout a whole book, his new prose work L-Istejjer Strambi ta' Sara Sue Sammut surprises his readers with a collection of works which not only covers a whole range of human experience but also demonstrates a very skilful and mature command of various tones.
Perhaps the most surprising for Mifsud's regular readers were the sketches of Sara Sue's first exploits, ranging from babyhood to her mid-20s (?), in the Malta of the Eighties. The background was evocatively recreated through the eyes of a bright, energetic, working class girl who was brought to life at the launch by Ray Calleja. The audience's laughter, I am sure, was intensified by the fact that there has been no evidence of this light-hearted sort of humour in Immanuel Mifsud's writing before now. Even the story 'Kont Hsibt li l-Fjuri Kollha Mietu', which had the audience in fits at Inizjamed's Evening on Campus last year, is not of the same brand.
Personally I still think this story is the best he has written to date, reaping the fruits of his former experiments with chat-talk, depicting the loneliness of those who turn to machines rather than to flesh and blood spouses for comfort, capturing the essential urge to reach out for new stimulation and fresh hope, while the prose moves in patterns which allow the reader to see what the protagonist cannot - that the hope is doomed.
Another story which won acclaim in Paris two summers ago and which has already been read in French and English translation before appearing in its original Maltese in this collection, is 'Rubi', another moving tale, told in dead-pan narrative, of a character stuck in the rut of orthodoxy while he dreams of the wild, free girl he knew in his youth, and whom he unconsciously continues to search for in the women he tries to fill his increasingly stagnant and lethargic life with.
Although I have my reservations about the ending of 'Kont Hsibt li l-Fjuri Kollha Mietu', I have no doubt at all that the ending of 'Rubi' is superb as it is chilling. That is, of course, if you are sensitive enough to respond to its implications.
I am writing this at all, in fact, because Mona Farrugia, in writing about Immanuel Mifsud in conversation with Guze' Stagno, concentrated exclusively on the story which gives the collection its name. 'Sara Sue' is clever, funny, provoking, and social satire which is as entertaining as its highly endearing protagonist. But in the rest of the stories one finds a sensitivity which is sometimes painful, a longing for love and beauty that is sometimes tangible, as in 'Vjolini', written over a long period of time.
In direct contrast, then, we have horrible brutality and repulsive violence in 'Ultras'. I enjoyed the economy of 'Mobile', which plays with the diachronic and synchronic aspects of sameness through three portraits of basically the same person in different garb. The impersonality of this story is almost frightening but effectively sums up in only three pages a major malaise of our times.
Mifsud insists he writes out of vanity. In some measure, don't we all! Even if it isn't the only reason we write for. These days, I have learnt to pay very little attention to what Mifsud says - it changes all the time! But if you enjoy reading good literature in Maltese, I'd advise you to do what I do. Pay a great deal of attention to what Immanuel Mifsud writes!
The Sunday Times (Malta), 22 December 2002
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