Killer’s return: Karl Schembri comes full circle with new ‘Il-Manifest…’ edition

Author Karl Schembri returns to the Maltese publishing scene with his incendiary 2006 novel Il-Manifest Tal-Killer

Karl Schembri at his writing desk, while his canine companion Mitti keeps him company Photo by Simine Alam
Karl Schembri at his writing desk, while his canine companion Mitti keeps him company Photo by Simine Alam

Author Karl Schembri returns to the local publishing scene while continuing to pursue his international humanitarian work in parallel, as both the picture book It-Tifel Li Salva d-Dinja and the re-issue of his incendiary 2006 novel Il-Manifest Tal-Killer hit the shelves courtesy of Merlin Publishers. He speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the wildly different releases

How does it feel to be back on the local publishing scene, with two broadly different volumes published by Merlin?

Three, actually – there’s also The Lulu Diaries published by Ede Books.

It feels great to be back, although it also feels weird not being able to be around and having to witness it all from abroad in these bizarre times.

Also weirdly, the three books were written quite a while ago. Il-Manifest tal-Killer is in its third edition, first published in 2006, this being the first time with Merlin, while It-Tifel li Salva d-Dinja is out for the first time, also with Merlin, but I wrote the very first version of that story in 2013. And then there is The Lulu Diaries, which were originally written at the end of 2012, when I was living in the Gaza Strip and I had this feisty Palestinian kitten living with me, after she was rescued from the streets during a deadly Israeli military escalation.

So it feels quite like delayed gratification, a nice way to come back to the publishing scene with quite a varied, if not schizophrenic, range of writings: from the foul-mouthed angry anarchist novel to a story for children about love, to a funny book about a Gazan kitten. In a way, that tells you a lot about why I write creatively: it allows me to take on multiple personalities without having to go to a psychiatrist.

Could you guide us through the evolution of It-Tifel Li Salva d-Dinja? What inspired you to dive into your first foray into children’s literature and picture books, and what were the first stages of the process after you hit upon its core ideas?

I wrote the very first draft of ‘It-Tifel’ in one go on a little notebook in Cairo, in a cafe in Tahrir Square, in January 2013. I wrote it as a short story in English. The original idea was built around the image of a little boy with no friends, a loner, perhaps bullied or just picked on, who could change the world because of an intense, unlikely friendship with the sun, against all odds and breaking all laws. I also wanted that friendship, or love, to be as undefined as possible, refusing to be pigeon-holed, staying unique and extraordinary.

I didn’t think much of writing for children, although it’s something I love to do and experiment with.

I was mostly concerned with a pretty simple story to be told in its purest form. The placing, the categorisation, the marketing, all come much later. In fact, when I first approached Chris Gruppetta of Merlin a few years ago with the English original, he politely turned it down although he admitted liking the story. So he added that if I were to rewrite it into Maltese and expand it, he would be interested. I took it as a challenge to be disciplined and take this on as a serious project, which also included expanding the story into six chapters. Chris put me in touch with Clare Azzopardi and Rachel Portelli, who are the editors behind the Tikka Qari series, and from then on it was a back and forth of ideas and literary pruning.

A ‘Level 12’ picture book forming part of the Tikka Qari series, Karl Schembri’s It-Tifel Li Salva Id-Dinja is beautifully illustrated and deceptively complex
A ‘Level 12’ picture book forming part of the Tikka Qari series, Karl Schembri’s It-Tifel Li Salva Id-Dinja is beautifully illustrated and deceptively complex

Throughout this process, Clare and Rachel helped me immensely to make sure that the story was speaking to children. For example, I love using long sentences with never ending brackets and deviations, digressions of quirks and distractions, as a way of being playful with language and teasing the reader. But that doesn’t work all that well with children who need to focus on the essence of the story. So in our back and forth I think we managed to find the right balance that still introduces children to the playfulness of language – that a story is not just a story, but it’s also about the little seemingly inconsequential details that colour it. Like life.

What do you make of the book’s accompanying illustrations by Alice Samuel? What was your collaborative process like, and what were some of the main elements of the narrative that you wanted her to bring out?

Alice did an amazing job of bringing out the love and tender resilience in the story. We started off by going through what we felt were the most picture-worthy instances in the story, but I also loved that she managed to capture the quirky sides of it, the little brackets and digressions, such as the drawing of a cat defying the laws of gravity to the shock of a bird who thought it was safe up there on a tree.

It’s just a couple of sentences in the story, asking the reader to imagine what the consequences would be if the laws of the universe had to stop functioning, including the law of gravity, with a direct impact for example on birds who would have no safety nesting on the top of a tree if cats could reach them so easily.

For me, having that image illustrated was extremely important in reinforcing the idea of the playfulness of storytelling, including these digressions.

On to the reissue of Il-Manifest tal-Killer. How do you feel about the book getting a new lease on life through Merlin, and how do you feel about it all in retrospect: both in terms of the thematic content of the novel itself and how it may or may not remain topical in this day and age, as well as how it sits side by side with other novels in the ‘canon’ of contemporary Maltese literature that have been published since?

I’m very happy that Merlin brought back Il-Manifest on the bookshelves. In a way it takes the publishing history of this book full circle, vindicating it message of resistance and persistence: from shunned by major publishers, then published by a total newcomer to the book and literature world (Choppy Books/MaltaToday), to censored by the University radio station, to staged as a play at Notte Bianca, to published again almost 15 years later, in its third reprint, by Merlin.

When Mario Azzopardi, my mentor and literary father, endorsed it wholeheartedly and took it upon himself to edit it in the summer of 2005, and Saviour Balzan published it a year later, it was just the beginning of a long journey that pretty much reflected the very fundamental theme in the novel of freedom of speech and the core, essential need for uncompromising rebellion to construct one’s identity.

And speaking of freedom of expression, news is out that Xarabank has been axed by TVM. I’ve written and spoken to Peppi directly many times about what I thought of the programme. In the 23 years it has spent on air, Xarabank itself became an institution. That is not wrong in itself, what I disagreed with was the dumbing down of everything on the public broadcaster. A shame, really, as Peppi is a good man and I wish him well – all I’ve learnt about standing up for what you believe in and daring to go against the grain, I learnt from him when he was my teacher in secondary school. I hope this will push him to reinvent himself. It doesn’t have to be the imperative of ratings. I’d love to see something more intimate, something less obsessed with being popular with everyone, that does not mix ghosts and gossip with fundamental questions about how our country is run, for example.

I don’t know much about the canon of Maltese literature and where my novel fits, and I don’t really care. What I know is that, 14 years later, the Malta police force has been outed as more incompetent than I even portrayed it here, even more corrupt, as we’re still getting to understand the extent of Joseph Muscat’s murderous, nefarious regime that led to Daphne Caruana Galizia being blown up.

What I know is that political corruption has become crasser than ever. Under Fenech Adami it was plastered with a veneer of the weeping Holy Virgin, a John Dalli with tits, crying at the corruption of conservative values while promoting a capitalist orgy. Under Muscat, corruption is something that is done in your face, on a yacht with your wife and daughters, of which you can barely afford the fucking anchor. Under Fenech Adami, you’d be on iċ-Ċaqnu’s payroll and shut up. After Muscat, you meet corruption in a public square and take a fucking selfie wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt.

The new edition of Il-Manifest Tal-Killer
The new edition of Il-Manifest Tal-Killer

So yes, I still think my novel is topical, and will remain for a while. Our national mediocrity and corruption seem stronger than my dream of an anarchist cultural coup, as expounded in my novel. But there are also the rays of light that were already there when I wrote it: Moviment Graffitti will be celebrating their 26th anniversary in three months’ time – they were the inspiration for many of the characters I love, my heroes.

What do you make of the Maltese literary scene? What would you change about it?

I’ve been away from Malta for over a decade now, but I keep being pleasantly surprised by the sheer volume of publications that keep coming out, and how young new authors are persevering in standing their ground with more and more new writings. I’d love to see even more variety, even more Walid Nabhans – voices from the outside who have become intimate insiders. Refugees, migrants, foreign workers.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know. I have a lot of ideas but not sure which ones of them deserve to live.

It-Tifel li Salva d-Dinja, and the new edition of Il-Manifest Tal-Killer, are both published by Merlin Publishers. The Lulu Diaries is published by Ede Books