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Mark Camilleri

Our books are our country

The publication of great pieces of Maltese literature and academia is an ongoing process with its own rich history and one can surely feel proud when making reference to these works to future generations.

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Mark Camilleri
7 July 2015, 7:53am
Allow me to be quite frank in starting this article off on the premise that Malta is burdened by its fair share of politicians whose supposed broad-mindedness masks a marked provincialism and a vision as broad as the distance from home to the village square.

This said, I’ve been forced to consider that, after all, these politicians might not be the ideal representatives of the spirit of our generation; that future generations deserve better role models for the age.

So if we yearn to be represented as a nation and as a generation, where or whom should we turn to? What can truly encapsulate the essence of Malta’s contemporary spirit to an alien audience without turning our faces red?

The answer, I suspect and sincerely hope, is to be found in our books and our authors. 

The publication of great pieces of Maltese literature and academia is an ongoing process with its own rich history and one can surely feel proud when making reference to these works to future generations. A look at the winners of the 2014 National Book Prize is a good indication of the diversity and of the rich content which is being produced locally. 

Going through the Book Prizes one by one, we should definitely start by mentioning the much coveted prize of the Novels category, which last year was awarded to Walid Nabhan for his novel “L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji” (“The Exile of the Storks”).

Although Nabhan is generally classified as an emerging author, and is little known beyond literary circles, there’s an interesting story behind Nabhan’s prize, which might catch the attention of a wider audience.

Nabhan may technically be described as an immigrant who has lived here long enough and studied and wrote so much as to be able to master the Maltese language like a well experienced and erudite local writer. His fictitious novel, which is undoubtedly somewhat biographical, is based on the identity crisis of a Jordanian-born Palestinian immigrant who ends up living in Malta.

In the future, historians will probably find it interesting that an immigrant was as capable to not only adapt and integrate into Maltese society, but also to go so far as to contribute a deeply significant masterpiece to Maltese literature that is most relevant to its time.

In this way, Nabhan’s novel shows that what’s happening in Maltese literature may very well be a reflection of the current trends and developments in Maltese society – that literature is in itself a go-to historical source for generations to come. Authors don’t write in a vacuum and their background and context may easily spillover into their work, providing future historians and scholars more pieces with which to solve their puzzles. 

Alfred Sant, a prolific writer who surely needs no introduction, won the prize in the Short Stories category with his collection of stories “Ċpar”, and the established author Immanuel Mifsud won the prize in the Poetry category with his collection of poems “Penelopi Tistenna”.

Mifsud’s rhythmic and well-constructed verses never fail to impress. With his prize-winning collection of poems, Mifsud yet again brings to the Maltese reader the sadness and grief of the emotionally disenfranchised souls and the lonely hearts in such a lucid manner that his poems feel as if they are one with your conscience.

Indeed, Mifsud’s poetry is so effective in rekindling deeply hidden if not dormant thoughts that it is hardly recommended for those who are sensitive to the depressing tunes of the broken-hearted. On the other hand, to the broken-hearted themselves, Mifsud appears as a prophet, as their subdued voice and their consolation. Mifsud keeps active in the literary field by organising and participating in public readings all over Malta with the series of readings entitled “Aqrali Qaltli”. 

Toni Aquilina, a prolific translator and lecturer at the University of Malta, won the prize for the Translation category with his translation of Yasmina Reza’s popular comedy “Le dieu du carnage” translated into Maltese as “L-Alla tal-Ħerba”. Translated texts of foreign pieces of literature are still a novelty in the local reading scene, but they are becoming ever more poplar.

Some of us might remember reading the monumental translation of Dante’s “Divina Commedia” by Alfred Palma, or Pawlu Montebello’s translation of “Don Quixote”; and yet, as a nation, it is safe to say that we are still far off from translating the bulk of the world’s greatest pieces of literature into Maltese. Hopefully, authors and publishers will start exploiting the Malta Book Fund for such purposes. 

Mario Azzopardi (il-Mulej), the rebel of the “Moviment Qawmien Letterarju” of the 1960s, won the prize in the Humanities and General Research section with his research on the history of the religious elements in local theatre with the book entitled “Verġni Sagri, Demonji u Boloħ għal Alla”. Adrian Grima won the prize for the Literature for Youth (ages 8 to 12) category with his collection of poems “Vleġġa Kkargata” illustrated by Karen Caruana; and yet, it was the popular children’s author Trevor Zahra who won the prize for Best Illustration with his book “Tqasqis”.

Two other prizes for the Best Design for books in English and books in Maltese were awarded to Midsea Books and Merlin Publishers respectively, with Merlin winning the same prize for the second time consecutively thanks to the work of its creative in-house designer, Pierre Portelli. The lifetime achievement award was awarded to the late Professor Godfrey Wettinger for his vast and rich body of work on medieval history.

Expect this year’s Book Prize to be as exciting as last year’s. The submissions are in and the adjudictaion board is deliberating – their choices will not simply affect the authors and publishing houses in question but also our immediate cultural ferment and eventually, our history.

A country isn’t only built by its politicians and men of faith, but also by its artists and men of letters and Malta is surely not short of authors capable of giving great and moving pieces of literature which have, in their time, caused controversy and instigated change.

Our authors, our publishers, but most of all our books are leaders and role-models who ought to be remembered and celebrated – on them and in them resides Malta’s cultural wealth and potential.

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Mark Camilleri is a historian and chairman of the National Book Council.