Oliver Friggieri, intellectual who articulated nation’s consciousness, passes away

Giant of Maltese literature, intellectual, poet, novelist and critic whose work defined a canon of national literature, Olivier Friggieri, dies at 73

Oliver Friggieri
Oliver Friggieri

Oliver Friggieri, the man whose work laid bare the soul of a troubled nation in its worst days of political divide, has died. He was 73.

An intellectual who was a poet, novelist, literary critic, and minor philosopher, his work had an unmistakable timbre of existentialism.

He articulated Malta’s national consciousness in his works, notably with his 1986 work Fil-Parlament ma Jikbrux Fjuri and the unforgettable paean to murder victims Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana, victims of Malta’s political war in the 1980s.

Friggieri was born in Floriana, Malta, in 1947. He studied at the Bishop’s Seminary and then at the University of Malta in 1968 where he acquired a Bachelor of Arts in Maltese, Italian and Philosophy (1968), and then a Masters (1975).

In 1978 he acquired a Doctorate in Maltese literature and Literary Criticism from the Catholic University of Milan, Italy.

Friggieri began his career in 1968 teaching Maltese and Philosophy in secondary schools. In 1976, he started lecturing Maltese to the University of Malta, before being appointed head of department in 1988. He became Professor in 1990.

Between 1970 and 1971 Friggieri was active in Malta’s literary revival movement, the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju. He was on the editorial board of the literary periodical Il-Polz (1969–73) and co-founded children’s magazine Is-Saghtar (1971).

In 1971 he collaborated in the establishment of the publishing house Klabb Kotba Maltin.

A Member of the Association Internationale des Critiques Litteraires of Paris, in 2008 Friggieri published his autobiography, Fjuri li ma Jinxfux. In 2016, Friggieri was awarded the Ġieħ l-Akkademja tal-Malti gold medal.

Friggieri is the author of several books and significantly contributed essays on Peter Caxaro and Mikiel Anton Vassalli. They include Stejjer Għal Qabel Jidlam (1986), Fil-Gżira Taparsi Jikbru l-Fjuri (1990), and novels Il-Gidba (1977), L-Istramb (1980), Fil-Parlament ma Jikbrux Fjuri (1986), Ġiżimin li Qatt ma Jiftaħ (1998), It-Tfal Jiġu bil-Vapuri (2000) and others.

‘He taught me to disobey’

The TV presenter Peppi Azzopardi, speaking to MaltaToday, called him “the man who taught me to disobey”.

He said that as a young man, he got hold of a pamphlet in which Olivier Friggieri had written that an unjust law had to be broken. “It shocked me. We were taught at school to obey, so how could this poet tell me not to obey? I thank God for having taken his advice. I chose to disobey from that moment on and what I have done in my life is also fruit of the seed that Friggieri sowed in me.”

Azzopardi said Friggieri was a “poet in Parliament, the village square, the university, the dockyard and the factory.”

“His poems were not self-gratifying or a showcase of his own deep thoughts; he did not write poems so that school children could learn their meter and rhyme. He wrote a poetry that was understood by the people without a critic interceding for him.

“Friggieri was a man of caution but he could sow courage and overcome fear in the name of what was right. It was the right thing not to make him President of the Republic, for his poems would have caused him trouble. His work keeps him alive, speaking to all our consciences.”

The writer and academic Prof. Adrian Grima, said Friggieri had almost single-handedly established Maltese literary theory and criticism as an academic discipline.

“We owe our work in this field to him. Even today his academic writings  remain fundamentally important to all those who want to write about our literature.

“But he was also scrupulously aware of his role and his responsibilty both as a leading public intellectual and as an educator. Students and many others found solace in his profound humanity, in his quiet manners, in his abilty to empathise with people and share their sorrow. To me, and to many others, he was a second father. I will miss him dearly.”

Accolades from leaders

The Maltese government saluted Friggieri’s memory. “He is one of Malta’s greatest writers, whose recognition goes beyond Maltese shores. He is a patriot who celebrated Maltese identity, and whose work is a reference point for the language, contributing much to Maltese history, and promoting a sense of unity for this nation.”

Accolades for the writer came from Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech, who saluted the “giant of Maltese literature, a prolific writer whose workers were translated in various languages... he bequeathed unto us a long career to the benefit of the Maltese language.”

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat described Friggieri as a “genuine friend”.

“His authenticity did not recognise political affiliation, and he would call out what was good and bad in all our country’s phases. His works were a symbol of the Fenech Adami ‘resistance’ in the 1980s. But he was also someone who recognised the good that Mintoff did. He was one of the persons whose small chats with me influenced me in my time in politics.”

Muscat had appointed Friggieri to head the Foundation for National Festivities. “He imprinted upon me the need for unity in a small country often caught up in its own gaze. Oliver Friggieri is one of Malta’s greats.”