THE SMS CULTURE
by Paul Xuereb
This new collection of stories puts Mifsud in the vanguard of the new generation of short-story writers. It is not his first collection, and though the stories are all linked together by his ironical but ultimately preoccupied views of the kind of society we are so crazily building ourselves they show him experimenting with different styles. They range from the often funny and mainly light-hearted title story which is indebted to writers like Sue Townsend ("Adrian Mole") and Helen Fielding ("Bridget Jones"), to the anguished romanticism of "Rubi" and "Vjolini", or to the dark self-portrait of a violent, promiscuous and hard-drinking youth in Ultras.
Stylistically the most daring is "Kont Hsibt li l-Fjuri Kollha Mietu", a piece that had struck me when I heard it read brilliantly by Ray Calleja (I think it was he) at an "Evenings on Campus" event in 2001. This is the first example that has come to my notice in our literature in which the culture and language of the computer chat-room and of the SMS are depicted as practically determining the emotional life of the young.
A good deal of it is taken up by the banalities, obscenities and anxious probing of interlocutors who lay aside many of their inhibitions as they try to connect with others to escape their loneliness or discover an easy lay. Andrew and his Samantha are the main characters, both unhappily married (or so they say) and both finding the electronic communications almost as exciting as their sexual encounters. In this piece, perhaps more than in any of the other pieces, Mifsud depicts most grippingly the new romanticism to which today's over-50s are mainly strangers.
Young people's obsession with mobile phones and SMSing is the theme of this collection's slenderest story, Mobile, while the hidden excitement and dangers of e-mail correspondence play a small but crucial part in "Vjolini", one of the longer stories. This is a love story of an old type given face-lift contemporary technology and international travelling.
The narrator's life has been destroyed by a youthful love affair with a free-living girl from Eastern Europe, that he unwittingly brought to an end when he brought the girl to Malta where she has to submit to the conventions of our family life. The river flowing through the city where he first met her, a symbol of freedom and endless possibilities, becomes a recurring metaphor in the story, reminding us again and again of the man's obsession with his lost love and with the error that led to his losing her.
Two long-term relationships with other women collapse and a trip back to the city where he met his love not only fails to discover her whereabouts but makes him seek sex with strangers to forget, but in vain. On finding that Marquita, his present partner, too seeks solace in a relationship born of a computer chat, he knows it is time he left. All he now wants is to wander endlessly: "Irrid it-triq."
"Rubi"'s structure is one Mifsud likes - that of short episodes showing the growth of a relationship or, in this case, of an obsession over the years. The obsession with the girl of the title in this story is not tragic, or near-tragic, as in "Vjolini", but it too leads to a failed marriage and to the narrator's weakness for girls with blue eyes (I suspect Mifsud himself is attracted by blue or green eyes since they recur in these stories). "Rubi" is a sexy and promiscuous girl whose favours the narrator enjoyed while still a schoolboy.
Glimpsed over the years, she does not really meet the narrator, now a respectable but lonely and religiously non-practising family doctor, before she has herself been changed, from tart to respectable Born Again Christian. The story ends, in fact, as Rubi smilingly tries to convert the astonished doctor. Like some of the other stories, it has an open ending, but it is difficult not to smile wryly at the doctor's discomfiture as all his erotic visions go up in smoke.
The darkest stories are "Ultras" and "Gzejjer". The former has been influenced by the current "in your face" English school by authors like Irvine Welsh in narrative fiction and Mark Ravenhill in drama. It is an excitingly told first-person narrative that is also very depressing because of the picture of the subculture it paints.
The narrator is an unattractive, sometimes utterly repulsive, young tough who works in a supermarket, carting things around, during the week and getting drunk, sleeping with his girl or with a tart, and getting into fights at the weekend. He is redeemed in part by his affection for his friend Toni and for another friend who died recently of an overdose.
The deliberately underwritten ending leaves it open whether Toni too has died of the same cause, or if the narrator has killed his hated adversary, L-Iswed, whom he has badly beaten up. We know that if Toni is dead, the narrator will give up on life, so the open ending of the piece can leave us in little doubt that his future is a grim or desolate one.
Mifsud shows clearly how the coarseness is not just in his narrator's language but in his very soul - in the way he treats the girls he sleeps with and everyone else, save Toni.
This story and "Gzejjer" form the core of the collection which the author has dedicated to victims of the drug culture living in a country he describes as "stinking from head to foot ... and in which everyone, myself included, claims to be stainless." What he does not try to do is explore what has made the country what he thinks it is, limiting himself to describing people and events who are maimed or destroyed by the pervasive corruption.
In "Gzejjer" the main character is a girl, Josette, who is middle-class, sleeps with her boyfriend, and goes wild at discos where she takes Ecstasy. She is unhappy, however, partly because she has begun to doubt her sexual identity, and she suffers a psychological breakdown when a boy she was dancing with dies on the dance-floor after which she enters a passionate lesbian relationship.
A sizable portion of the story is taken up by a skilfully written but overlong police interrogation of Josette about the dead boy and drug taking. Josette is one of Mifsud's best characters: streetwise, caught up in the party culture, but unsure of herself and fundamentally unhappy.
Mifsud's satire on the conteporary fad for 'reality television' programmes that in reality have been heavily doctored by the producer is biting in "Proset tal-Programm" in which a young TV director is practically blackmailed into making her honest interview programme into a fake one in which people are persuaded to pretend that their lives are full of sensational and pathetic incidents.
The title-story comes as a comic relief. Set mainly during the long years of Labour government in the Seventies and Eighties and featuring a madcap girl from a Nationalist family, its satire is never dark or angry and Sara Sue herself is delightful, especially when she becomes a member of the Communist Party and takes home large pictures of Marx and Che Guevara (whom she fancies) and persuades her mother they are icons of the Father and the Son, a fib exposed when the parish priest indignantly sees them.
Her story is told as answers to a series of questions of the sort some magazine journalists are fond: "The first time you had sex" or "The first time someone wrote me a poem". The poem, an amusing spoof of the left-wing verse written in the Sixties and Seventies, is written by a Marxist who then takes her virginity. This same young man provides Mifsud with the tale's very amusing ending.
This is a book I strongly recommend to those many young people who wrongly think that our writers cannot write fiction that is clever, amusing and gripping.
The Sunday Times (Malta), 19 January 2003
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