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State expectations | Alex Vella Gera

By turning down a national honour, author Alex Vella Gera may also have also forced us to confront the elusive question of what our nation state actually represents, and what we should or should not expect from it.

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
30 December 2013, 12:00am


Alex Vella Gera may not have been a household name throughout his career as frontman of the indie rock group Hunter's Palace. But as an author - both of novels and of local controversies - he certainly seems to have a way of making himself heard.

His recent novels - especially 'Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi' - earned critical acclaim, and his collection of short stories 'Zewg' placed second in the 2011 National Book awards. But it was a story published in a campus magazine in 2009 that first catapulted him onto the national stage: despite the fact that he himself has always been rather dismissive of what is ultimately a microscopic satire on adolescent lust and Mediterranean machismo.

Nonetheless, 800-word 'Li Tkisser Sewwi' - with its visceral, no-holds-barred, colloquial scatology, and its ultra-explicit sexual references - seemed to strike a nerve among Malta's traditionally less prosaic intellectual elite. University rector Juanito Camilleri even felt the need to call the police, and Vella Gera, along with editor Mark Camilleri, found himself facing a possible six years' imprisonment for violating Malta's archaic obscenity laws.

Echoes of this debacle can still be heard today, long after the case was rejected at both first instance and on appeal. Last month, Vella Gera and Camilleri found themselves nominated for the National Order of Merit award by a state that had earlier (twice) pursued their imprisonment. Ironically, one of the members of the nominating board was none other than Attorney General Peter Grech, who led the first and second crusades against Vella Gera's literary efforts with quasi-messianic gusto [In his appeal he reminded the lower courts that "there is God above everything and everyone - God, who is definitely bigger than the biggest ego of the most celebrated authors..."]

Yet nobody seemed to have noticed this apparent volte-face by the Republic of Malta... until Vella Gera announced that he would not accept the honour, thus whipping up a minor frenzy of media attention.

Two weeks after the dust from the ensuing avalanche has settled, I catch up with him in Brussels, where he works as a translator. Now that his decision has been publicly dissected and analysed in all its ramifications, how does he feel about it today? Was there any aspect of the reactions - both positive and negative - that forced a rethink, or changed his outlook in any way?

"No," he replies after a brief pause. "I feel exactly the same today as I did when I first heard about the nomination, when I decided to refuse, and when I wrote the statement and sent it to the President. I stand by what I wrote in that statement."

What he wrote was effectively an indictment of the entire political system: "I cannot accept an honour from the Maltese political class which, apart from some exception, has been causing so much damage to my country".  Yet curiously, Vella Gera doesn't seem to see his own action as 'political'.

"My protest was not as a politician... though everything becomes political in the end... but as an individual. Once they passed the ball to me, I felt I had to score. I couldn't pass it back. But that's what they evidently expected me to do. Not just me, but everybody else, too. This is where I suppose it becomes political. A form of civil disobedience, perhaps. I just don't want to be part of the give-and-take between politicans and people. They always expect that when they give you something, you just to have to accept it. It always has to be handshakes all round..."

But Vella Gera argues that it doesn't - or shouldn't- work that way. And the fact that the two parties evidently think it should, is also a reflection of how very deeply they are caught up in their own political game.
"What they don't seem to understand is this. If you're pissed off at the way things are, you're pissed off in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. It's not like you're angry in the morning, and then accept an award that same evening..."

If his intention was to make a statement, it certainly succeeded. Social networks flickered into life with reactions and counter-reactions; and predictably, the discussion unfolded along distinctly partisan lines. Many of his prominent critics hailed from clearly Labour stables, and tended to interpret the refusal as a sleight to a republic they now feel is an extension of their own government.

And Vella Gera himself cried foul when Opposition mouthpiece Net TV - which had formerly tried to associate him with paedophilia when actively supporting his prosecution  - capitalised on an apparently anti-government statement to make political mileage.

"Disgusting hypocrites" ('Ipoktriti u skifuzi'), he dubbed them at the time. Less acrimonious about it now, Alex Vella Gera reminds me of the incident as an example of exactly the sort of double standards he was protesting against.

"It's the way things are twisted for political purposes. This is just one example of what I'm talking about. In fact you could say that one of the main reasons for refusing the award is that the domination of Malta by politics... and even then, only by a certain class of people... has gone on for far too long. My action was an attempt to break that mould."

He acknowledges, however, that the extent of the reaction took him by surprise. "It probably worked both ways. I certainly surprised them, judging by the reaction. Guess they're not used to this sort of thing. But I suppose it's the sort of thing you can only do once. I've burnt my bridges with both sides now..."

Still, he didn't expect to become a national talking point: reminding me that this was not the first time he had publicly made a similar statement. "When I was awarded second prize at the National Awards I chose not to attend the ceremony, because I couldn't stomach the idea of shaking hands with a prime Minister whose TV station had accused me of paedophilia."

There was, however, a difference. Vella Gera boycotted the ceremony but accepted the award on that occasion. He nods. "My problem wasn't with the National Book Council. They had nothing to do with the prosecution."

In both cases, he argues that he was reflecting a wider discontent with a certain modus operandi which has now become deeply ingrained in our culture. At a glance, the rest of the nominations for the National Order of Merit seem to cement perceptions of a society that thrives on blatant contradictions. Vella Gera highlighted this in his 13 December statement, too: "I see clear contradictions in this honours' list, amongst them a Russian politician who is close to Vladimir Putin, whose anti-gay campaign we know so well about, and at the same time there's transsexual Joanne Cassar..."

Other nominations seem to have had rather obvious political connotations. "I hate to quote Daffy Duck," he tells me with reference to... well, Daffy Duck, "but she's right on this one. A number of awards were politically motivated. Anyone who had somehow put the Gonzi administration in a bad light - including myself and Mark [Camilleri], I suppose - was awarded by the Muscat administration."

Vella Gera openly questions how long people are likely to put up with this admittedly absurd situation.

"It's the way things are done here, and I am not the only one complaining. There is a growing category of people that is sick and tired of the constant charade. You end up feeling constantly assaulted by stupid decisions and vested interests on an almost daily basis. And practically everyone has a conflict of interest..."

Does this include the AG sitting on the board that nominated him in the first place? He shrugs.

"I don't really know what to make of that myself. I'm not sure how the board acually functions. Maybe the AG doesn't have a say, maybe he abstained or voted against. But yes, I suppose it just another conflict to add to all the rest."
Vella Gera feels less strongly about this particular case, than he does where major commercial interests are concerned. "You can't turn your head without seeing a conflict of interest looking back at you. Sometimes I wonder how can they expect to keep getting away with it."

Pressed for an example he points towards Anne Fenech, who occupies the dual role of president of the PN, and also legal representative of the developers' lobby. Vella Gera argues that the two interests - political and commercial, in this case - cannot be divorced from one another because they will inevitably collide. When in government, political parties enact legislation that may have a direct impact on developments. This places Fenech directly where the hammer and anvil meet.

"Represent the developers by all means... but then don't accept a political position. If these people are my neighbours and acted like that... let's say there are problems with some leaking pipes in my apartment block. We're discussing who's responsible. My neighbour decides to change the residents' association committee, and places his own personal friends on it. This is exactly what these people are doing in a different context - only with no understanding of good neighbourly conduct."

This, he adds, points towards one of many instances where political parties view themselves as exceptions to every rule.

"In politics, it's kind of accepted. People tend to accept from politicians what they would not accept from any other category. I don't accept it, however. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I don't accept it."

The most frustrating thing, Vella Gera confesses, is not so much the apparent institutionalised rot in itself, but public reactions (or lack thereof) when it rises to the surface.

"Even in our reactions there are hidden interests and agendas. Take the recent environmental protest in Valletta, for instance. What were exponents of the PN, which had extended the development zones and caused so much damage in their time, even doing there? Why were they not booed out of the city?"

The answer, he suggests, is because the protest was not about the environment at all. "I can tell you many of the protestors were Nationalists who were simply protesting because there was a Labour government. The same people wouldn't have protested over the same issue a few years ago."

Indeed you have to go back quite a few years to find a truly meaningful expression of national unrest.

"When were the last really big national protests held in Malta? The ones I can think of are the Church schools crisis in the 1980s; and the 1960s, when Mintoff was challenging the hegemony of the Church. I don't remember the 1960s, but I do remember the Church Schools issue. In both cases it had to be the Catholic Church, to which everyone at the time felt a visceral connection, to galvanise a national reaction. This tells us something about our country, I think. People only protest when the things they hold most dear are threatened. The environment, corruption, greed... these things do not cause protests. Not even the oil scandal. The reaction to that was extremely tame..."

The same rationale seems to apply to popular perceptions of his own action on 13 December.

"What I find really sad - and here I have very little hope that things will change - is the sense of helplessness. I got quite a few messages, telling me things like: 'well done, we agree completely, but we can't do the same because we live in Malta. You don't. You live in Brussels. You can't be independent and also live in the system'..."

The implication is that Vella Gera's own circumstances make rejection of the system slightly easier. But this only compounds the problem, as it seems to force people to escape the country altogether in order to free themselves from its shackles.

At the same time, however, Vella Gera's own protests seems to have underscored one of the system's weaknesses. At the end of the day, national honours are technically conferred by the state: which is supposed (heavy emphasis on that last word) to be more than just the sum total of the two parties occupying Parliament. Vella Gera was in fact criticised for 'misdirecting' his protest: which seemed aimed at the suppsoedly non-political President of the Republic, and not at the parties themselves.

"The issue is at a higher institutional level that politics alone, I agree. The real divide is not between the PN and PL, it's between whoever wields power and whatever interests they represent. I know there are people who are genuine in both parties. But who do they really represent at the end of the day? They look after each other. It's an institutional problem affecting all levels, and I don't know how it can be solved. What I do know is that there is need for a quantum leap of evolution."

But even if one applauds Vella Gera's gesture... where does all this leave the non-politically inclined citizen? What's left of the Republic of Malta for the rest of us, if we boycott everything that has the paw-prints of the political dupoly all over it?

"Where does that leave the rest of the country? Yes, it's a valid question. We also have to ask ourselves what our Republic has become. Rai Tre recently had a feature about the sale of passports scheme. They came to Malta, and they portrayed us as an emerging new Dubai in the Mediterranean. This is what we've become. And both past PN and present PL are to blame. They are both very superficial, running the country as as if they were running a shopping centre. Their idea of what constitutes Malta, the Republic..."

His voice trails to nothing, only to resume: "These are not the right people to be running a country that is supposed to be proud, to have a strong sense of identity. Theirs is a very mercantile philosophy. They don't see any further than the money..."
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emanuel spiteri
Yes Carras1, Malta needs more lame masochistic mindless twats to serve the greedy self-serving clans without asking any questions. I Bet you are also so proud of your pseudo patriotism. The two parties mentioned have done more to sow hatred than AVG, or his like, ever will. Get a grip! Franco, wouldn't accepting the award be more attention seeking. Maybe you are looking at it the wrong way. John Lennon? Maybe you should lay down whatever you're toking.
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Winston John Sawyer
SPOT ON-DISGUSTING POLITICAL HYPOCRITES AND THEIR STATE/OPPOSITION TV JOURNALISTS ARE MERE PUPPETS ON A STRING!BOTH SIDES PLAYING HOLIER THAN THE POPE FOR VOTE CATCHING.WHEN WILL THE MALTES GROW UP!!!!
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Daniel Cassar Darien
So now we have a know-all whose only contribution to the island is his comments that would only enrich the trash cans. Why be so destructive. Do we have to agree with this arrogant guy who just likes to throw about comments without proving them? Why is he given so much space and time to express his arrogance and belittle the people who received the Gieh ir-Repubblika? Who was that stupid fellow who nominated him for the honour, and the board that accepted the nomination? Now please enlighten us all by giving out the names of those individuals who were rewarded for tarnishing the NP's name. I trust that he will now show us the facts or swallow his shallow criticism. I urge him to go over the list and name these individuals. Otherwise he should fill his mouth with water and stay put. we don't need people like him to sow hatred among the Maltese.
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Raymond Mintoff
He is simply an attention seeker deluding himself of being Malta's own version of John Lennon. Get a live Alex
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Anthony Pace
I love Alex but man I really don't like this sort of photo with those books behind him what its supposed to make him look well read or something?
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