Ġaħan fl-Aqwa Żmien: a caricature of the Muscat era

Mark Camilleri drinks from the deep and rich well of Mediterranean folklore in which Ġaħan often challenges popular common sense. And effectively, he forges a Ġaħan with which the bourgeois audience can identify but also a national popular character reminiscent of Paolo Villaggio’s Fantozzi

Inset: Mark Camilleri
Inset: Mark Camilleri

Reading through the live blogs and news reports as events unfolded in December 2019 already felt like reading an unfolding horror novel. And the squalid protagonists revolving around the Daphne murder plot and the various corruption spin-offs from Panamagate have now taken a life of their own as deformed and grotesque caricatures already magnified in Caruana Galizia’s blog.

Mark Camilleri, a former chairman of the National Book Council and a historian, was one of the few voices in Labour openly calling for the resignation of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi as early as 2016 but he remained fiercely ‘loyal’ to the party, even supporting it in the 2017 general election, until he was axed from his political appointment by the new Abela administration. He has now taken up the challenge of an opportunity glaring in the face of any Maltese author willing to dive into the mire: that of constructing a pop novel based on these bizarre events.

In his first novel Camilleri does so with gusto in an imperfect, unpretentious and unforgiving piece of pulp fiction revolving around the life of a grotesque and obese IT professional called Dustin, whose life is “synchronized” with Malta’s history to the extent that even his unhealthy eating habits were conditioned by his liberation from the Mintoffian austerity imposed by his mother, as the country gorged itself in the consumerism unleashed by the liberalisation of markets under the PN.

But his mediocre life also intersects with the Muscat era, through Dustin’s brief and pornographic encounter with Polly.

For here is Mark Camilleri’s magic trick: his characters are transposed directly from political reality with little effort to disguise them. They are easily recognisable public figures. ‘Polly’ is obviously Labour MP and former Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar, ‘Derrick Tigiegu’ is Electrogas boss Yorgen Fenech, ‘Keith’ is Keith Schembri and the ‘King’ is Joseph Muscat.

And even Mark Camilleri slips himself in the plot as a mean-hearted publisher who frustrates Dustin’s dream of recognition as a poet in his bid to charm the opposite sex, only to compromise his professional integrity for the greater good by exchanging Ġaħan’s treasure trove of chats between Polly and Derrick in return for publishing Dustin’s bad poetry.

This literary stratagem enables Camilleri the historian with the opportunity of forging his own primary source, one which obviously makes caricatures of public figures which already exist as caricatures in the public psyche. In doing so he captures the testosterone-charged zeitgeist of the Muscat era. How accurate Camilleri is in presenting a glimpse into this world of political intrigue is arguable and can never be verified. Yet the conversation between Keith, Derrick and ‘il-King’ sounds as plausible as Paolo Sorrentino’s Andreotti monologues.

“Just leave everything in my hands and don’t worry about that piece of shit,” Derrick told Keith and the King in a club in Portomaso. “But that reassurance kept on ringing in the King’s mind… in the depths of his soul and mind and in his dreams. For although he consciously tried to bury it, the consequence of leaving the matter in the hands of a coke-head kept haunting his subconscious which kept reminding him that the air was pregnant with blood.”

It is a scenario probably conjured by many of us in our private thoughts and Camilleri has documented this sensation giving it a semblance of reality.

Still there are pitfall in Camilleri’s use of literature to make a political point. For Polly’s major contribution to the plot is her willingness to let Ġaħan lick her asshole in exchange for his services as a website creator. And while – in real life – Rosianne Cutajar’s fate was sealed by her involvement in a property deal with Fenech exposed by MaltaToday – by presenting Polly as a woman who uses her body to get what she wants, Camilleri is indulging in the narrative of right-wing conservatives who relished in slut-shaming Cutajar. In the world-view of people like De Gabriele – another fictional character in Camilleri’s novel – it is moral degeneration which is the roots of all evil. But nothing could be more distant from Camilleri’s libertarian outlook to life.

Still, Camilleri’s depiction of Polly is more grotesque than sexist, drawing on a popular culture where political satire also taps into the erotic realm to punch harder. Even in Italy it was reports on ‘bunga-bunga’ parties – and not decades of journalistic and judicial investigations of mafia connections – which brought about the end of Silvio Berlusconi’s dominion over Italian politics.

Yet by going down this road, Camilleri consciously drinks from a poisoned well.

For while Camilleri’s book has literary merits, people are also reading it to get a glimpse of the Muscat era provided by someone who gives the impression that he was “in the know”, even if one doubts how close he even ever got to the impenetrable inner circle of Castille. Literature gives Camilleri the political intellectual/activist the poetic license to say things that can’t be expressed in prose. One may feel uncomfortable with aspects of Camilleri’s protagonism, including his notorious habit of picking unsolicited fights against so-called apologists from the academic field, but it is equally ridiculous to label Camilleri as a reactionary. His portrait of the fictional judge Degabriele, stands out as a brilliant depiction of retrograde Maltese conservatism of which Camilleri remains a firm opponent.

Moreover the book is not about Polly. Polly is probably inserted there to help Camilleri sell more books. It is about Dusti – a dialectical Ġaħan who merges proletarian and bourgeois traits and is capable of profound reflections which provokes a crisis in the reader. Dustin’s is no spiritual metaphor for Malta’s spiritual malaise, but an imperfect body with vulgar bodily urges living in an imperfect world. Neither is it easy to pigeon-hole Dustin in the class structure. For Dustin listens to the Smiths, the Queens of the Stone Age and the Rolling Stones, attends literature festivals and pretends to like Immanuel Mifsud’s poetry in his failed attempt to get laid with Claudette, a female Graffitti activist who politely rebuffs his timid advances.

He also tries to get rich quick with minimum effort by investing in crypto and designing metarobots as NFTs. Yet Dustin is also insular, preferring a weekend break to travelling abroad, and lacks any sophistication in terms of food. On some aspects he behaves like a troglodyte, in others he is part of what Camilleri coins as “the new aristocracy of the working class”, who like its forebears in the docks is much more cultured than the average man in the street.

In constructing Dustin, Camilleri drinks from the deep and rich well of Mediterranean folklore in which Ġaħan often challenges popular common sense. And effectively, he forges a Ġaħan with which the bourgeois audience can identify but also a national popular character reminiscent of Paolo Villaggio’s Fantozzi. One even suspects that Camilleri has also lent Dustin some of his own character traits and experiences, fully knowing that many in his cultural milieu will feel likewise. So once again, the reader ends up engaging with a caricature of himself or in the case of the female reader, of their male friends. For in some ways the obese and perverse Dustin also represents toxic masculinity, albeit one that is victim to one basic form of inequality: that based on looks and body shape.

Another central aspect of the book is the Maltese dream – that of becoming rich with a minimum amount of effort and risk through investment in property. And while brutal in his social commentary in a way reminiscent of Juan Mamo, Camilleri’s analysis does not fall in the traps of condescending bourgeois prejudice or holier than thou attitudes. Dustin inhabits an imperfect world, inhabited by imperfect people; even publisher Mark Camilleri only recognises Dustin’s value when he has something of value to give him. Dustin is not dumb and is surely appalled by the ignorance around him. Like many disillusioned educated young people, he does not vote in general elections but makes a rational calculation to avoid any confrontation with authority. In short, he sticks to the mantra that the purpose of life is that of avoiding pain and trouble – a comfort zone which consists in the simple pleasure of consuming the processed food he stores in his fridge.

Even friends and relationships represent complications which Dustin prefers to avoid in his quest for an uncomplicated life devoid of any responsibility. He even rejects a promotion to avoid more responsibility but ends up doing more work for his boss at the same wage!

And while he smokes pot to enhance his couch-potato existence for the munchies, Dustin is deeply disturbed when he smokes before going through the comment section of the news portals in which the masses rally to defend the corrupt. This leads him to make the rational calculation that he is better off not following the news.

But this sedentary, risk-averse existence offers him no protection from the power of market forces. His attempt to subvert capitalism, by investing in crypto, backfires badly, confirming his earlier choice to settle for a mediocre existence.

Camilleri’s ‘Ġaħan fl-Aqwa Żmien’ felt like a rollercoaster-ride down the pits of gratuitous depravity and up to Camilleri’s evocation of the ‘Maltese dream’ in the best of times, all packaged in refreshing self-irony and unrefined, scorched-earth irreverence... a good laugh until you start identifying with Dustin, in the same way you start feeling sad after crying your heart out laughing when watching a Fantozzi movie. Lurking beneath the brutality of the novel is a bubbling yearning for humanity, love and acceptance, which ultimately can only be found be accepting the imperfections of life.

To someone with a moderate and calm disposition – like me – Camilleri’s gratuitous invective leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, but is compensated by his perceptive insights on Maltese capitalism, the working class and its neighbourhoods, and even his demographic insights about Fgura, where I also grew up.

Ultimately, I consumed the book in two evenings in the same way that Dustin enjoyed his evenings – alone with myself avoiding unnecessary complications, in between snacks and puffs.