Paean to a professor – remembering Oliver Friggieri

Mark Vella, author of X’Seta’ Ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo? and anthologist of the Juann Mamo short stories in Ġrajja Maltija, remembers Oliver Friggieri and his work

Oliver Friggieri surveys an airfield during the filming of a short film of his poem ‘Il-Lejl F’Dan L-Istazzjon’
Oliver Friggieri surveys an airfield during the filming of a short film of his poem ‘Il-Lejl F’Dan L-Istazzjon’

The massive outpouring of grief witnessed in the last few days, coupled with the urgency, especially on social media, to record and recount individual encounters with the man, confirms him as the last of a breed of intellectuals, if not an extremely rare and most unique one for Malta.

One who spoke a language understood by all, and whose demise rallied people from all walks of life to salute him through their wistful stories and reminiscences, now laden with pride, joy, and even a sense of privilege at having been touched in one way or another by a historical figure. The privilege of having had access to the man and his words, from the ones who studied his critical works and attended his lectures, to those who might have overheard a phrase on a radio programme, memorised his verses from a bus stop, or stumbled serendipitously on some of his memorable writings.

I found myself in agreement with all the paeans that I scoured through in the last few days. They also reminded me of the man I forgot about, after years away from Malta, or due to the fact that I remember Friggieri at his best, and then followed him less in the last years of his career. Fortunately, and here’s my little story, last year I knocked on the wrong door at University, wanting to speak to the department secretary, and I found myself in Oliver’s office – as he insisted on being called, with me refusing adamantly – and being gifted with pencil drawings, this talent I never knew of, and which I now treasure dearly. The humble man, the gentle rebel, as many have remarked; but also, now that I jog my memory, a man with a sophisticated sense of humour, a master raconteur, a greater sense of irony and of the ridiculous, which enabled him to suffer fools gracefully and liquidate them painlessly through a deadpan phrase, a meaningful silence, a resigned smirk.

Indeed, I strove to find something that really struck me about Oliver, something that will stay with me, a jealous attempt at having my own personal memory. At being the first one to it, at not having to nod approvingly to yet another aspect mentioned by someone else. A vain exercise, but probably one fuelled by love for a man loved by many, desperately being claimed by all.

The greatest lesson I learnt from Professor Friggieri, thus – in my attempt for a unique and original reminiscence – was the value of doubt. The lack of any certainty, the distrust of vacuity, the avoidance of platitudes and the deviously commonsensical. The obsessive importance of words and their parsimonious use. The need to love them all, but then the ability to discern which ones to trust and keep, and which ones to discard, through their painful and careful dissection.

And, once you’re done, go back, and beware before committing. The fear of making the mistake. Not the fear of failure: Oliver surely approved Beckett’s “Fail again, fail better”. But the commitment to the truth, a fanatical fidelity to the word, despite its inherent limits in explaining a baffling world. This fear of certainty, this worship of doubt, was a lesson not devoid of its perils. Whilst probably intended as a deterrent to presumption, proud ignorance, the arrogance of power and entitlement – surely a necessary medicine for the days we’re living – it might have crippled many others, who either never took a plunge they could have taken, or else sourly realised limits which they however peacefully accepted and did not end up forcing on others.

Through this battlecry for rigour, Oliver might have rightly predicted our age of amateurs and fools rushing in to tread over fearful angels. Which illustrates Friggieri’s political legacy, once again a gentle rebellion which goes beyond the normally accepted schemes of power, which he himself rejected through his thorough investigation of the national consciousness and the rejection of political tribalism. Akin to Mikiel Anton Vassalli and Manwel Dimech, Friggieri’s politics cannot be submitted to a sectarian logic or a facile pigeon-holing. As national intellectuals, these men probed deep into the white-hot core of the matter, with the common trait being the identification of the essentials, the obvious, for the formation of a nation. The bleeding obvious, not as a euphemism, but as the oozing urgency of the festering wound: language as expression and as identity, a non-mythical approach to history, a recognition of the real dynamics of power, discarding the fetters that chain us to a seemingly unchanging social and political destiny.

In Friggieri’s case, this was done meekly, without the travails of a Vassalli and a Dimech. As a poet, indeed: exiled from birth, destined to never belong, or, as in the first couplet of Eh, Forsi, a romantic born to crave a century which is not his. An activism of the word and of the intellect, the necessary difference borne out of an existential condition before any social or historical milieu. Friggieri’s politics have to be studied further, maybe even with his same rigour, and beyond puerile attempts at immediately locating him within a particular site of power.

Thus, not only in the light of political history, but also in spite of it, as exemplified in Karlu Manju’s gratuitous defiance of the political class in Fil-Parlament Ma Jikbrux Fjuri, a novel which, faithful to the tradition of modern Maltese narrative, has a losing hero, who however is innovatively replete with an irony that boggles the minds of the powerful.

Even on its launch in 1986, the novel generated an interesting array of comments and criticism, having temporarily rippled the stagnant intellectual pond that Friggieri mentioned frequently.

It also shocked certain quarters, caught unawares by what could also be construed as a poet’s naïve stumbling into a minefield where he surely did not belong. Friggieri’s words may not have threatened or brought down governments, but they ventured out-of-bounds, against custom and accepted wisdom, with the potential to chime at all levels and whose echoes keep on informing our discourse. As single-handedly as his monumental work on Maltese literary criticism and literary history, Friggieri’s social and political analysis strived to achieve a necessary discussion that penetrated the heart of the matter, the inevitable gaze in the mirror which nullifies everything else as superficial and ancillary.

Friggieri might have been frequently associated with the Nationalist party, especially in the period between the anti-Mintoffian civil movement and the campaign for Malta’s EU accession, or else considered an innocuous bleeding-heart-wordsmith attempting to keep the peace between warring factions. It is a fact that the Fenech Adami’s PN was always extremely accommodating of intellectuals, especially when compared to a paranoid MLP that had dug its feet in anti-EU rhetoric, an indiscriminate mix of vetero-socialism and the populist right, and the cult of leader personality that nullified any attempt at some form of intellectual discourse.

I’d also venture to say that EU membership might have been the crowning of Friggieri’s political aspirations for Malta as a nation, a target that would herald a new world to be dealt with by others. Subsequent to which, he retired into a nostalgic phase, through his last trilogy of novels and also his autobiographical musings, which more than an archaeology of a nation, can be interpreted as a lament for the disappearance of certain values which he viewed as pertaining intrinsically to the Maltese soul. And maybe, the hopelessness at imagining what an alternative to this could be.

Even if potentially subject to being discarded as uncritically conservative, Friggieri’s last works merit a more thorough analysis, as the crowning of his vision throughout his career. And maybe, the irony of having that one great certainty, in the sea of doubts he challenged us to have: the existence of God. A simple faith, nearly childishly innocent, flying in the face of all studies and intellectual challenges. Friggieri’s work, even his public persona, is that of a committed Christian and a Catholic writer, imbued with the Malteseness of faith, but without its superficial negative aspects, from the folklore to the power. A poetic, philosophical faith, neither pious nor popish, underpinned by humility, compassion, and with the figure of the crucified Christ as the metaphor of the human condition.

Il-golgota twelidu,
il-golgota xortih,
il-golgota li tkissru,
il-golgota li tqawwih.

Hekk biss ikun poeta.

Mark Vella is Language Officer at the European Commission Representation and lectures within the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta