Wisdom in exile | Mark Montebello and Francis Galea

Mark Montebello and Francis Galea speak to us about Aphorisms, in which they unveil a quirky gathering of Manwel Dimech’s nuggets of wisdom, as composed in Alexandria while the authority-bothering author was in exile.

Social reformer and champion of the Maltese language Manwel Dimech's final writings were an English-language assortment of aphorisms.
Social reformer and champion of the Maltese language Manwel Dimech's final writings were an English-language assortment of aphorisms.

Could you guide us through your process of discovery? How did you go about locating the manuscript and testing its authenticity?

The discovery basically consists of three manuscripts, one of which is divided into three ledgers (five 'separate bodies', if you like). All the manuscripts are each made up of a collection of pages. Two of the manuscripts were handwritten by Juann Mamo (the author of Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerika), who was an unskilled worker who worked in Egypt, who sometimes visited Manuel Dimech in his captivity at Alexandria.

The other manuscript is handwritten by Dimech himself. One of Mamo's manuscripts consists of a draft copy of the other (which is a blue-print). Dimech's manuscript consists of part of what is contained in Mamo's manuscripts. The first discovery - Mamo's blue-print - was made in 2002, almost simultaneously by the two researchers, though Mamo's daughter kept it under lock and key. She first showed the manuscript to Francis Galea and then, within weeks, gave it to third parties who made a copy of it for Mark Montebello.

Galea procured a copy of it later. However, Mamo's daughter also revealed her father's draft manuscript to Galea. These manuscripts seemed to contain a literary work composed by Manuel Dimech. However, at the time there was no way of ascertaining its authenticity. All the researchers could do was to keep their eyes peeled for further developments. These came unexpectedly seven years later, in 2009, when the Dimech manuscript was revealed to Mark Montebello by the private family who kept it in its custody. Since the contents of this manuscript were seen to be identical to the Mamo manuscripts, the authenticity of the latter manuscripts became clear. Immediately, a thorough analysis of all the manuscripts was begun, and preparation for the publishing of Dimech's work was undertaken. This work took some three years.

Manwel Dimech

Manwel Dimech (centre) with his colleagues.

What was the relationship between Manwel Dimech and Juan Mamo like? Why was the manuscript left in the care of Mamo's family?

At that point in time Juan Mamo was a young man who had briefly met Dimech in Malta in 1913. During that same year, Mamo went to work in Egpyt and kept a regular correspondence with Dimech. Dimech was eventually exiled to Egypt in 1914. But Mamo did not begin to visit him in his captivity before the latter part of 1920. He continued to visit him every four weeks until March 1921, that is, a month before Dimech passed away. Mamo seems to have stopped his visits because he was assigned too far away from Dimech's concentration camp.

As it happened, the last time that Mamo visited the camp he discovered that Dimech had died a few weeks earlier and was consigned to an unmarked spot in the sand surrounding the camp. To his dismay, he had missed being beside his friend at the moment of his death. Eventually, as the closest person to Dimech's next of kin, Mamo was given Dimech's personal belongings to take back to Malta and give them to Dimech's family. Amongst the things he received were Dimech's papers, including a manuscript containing the literary work of which Mamo later produced a draft copy and a blue-print. That's how the manuscripts discovered in 2002 had come in his possession.

READ MORE: Born under the Christmas star: Manuel Dimech, Maltese patriot

Mark MontebelloFrancis Galea

Mark Montebello (left) and Francis Galea.

Why is it significant that the newly-discovered manuscript contains writing in English?

Dimech had never written an extensive literary work in English. His literary compositions were in either Maltese or Italian. It was certainly a surprise (and a disappointment for some) that his very last literary creation was in English. Of course, Dimech knew English very well, down to its grammar, and encouraged his followers in Malta to learn English, and other languages as well, including Arabic, in order to communicate better with the outside world. This might, however, only partially explain his choice of the English language for his aphorisms. The main reason for this, most probably, is that during his six-year captivity in Egypt he never had any Maltese companion to talk to in his mother tongue or even any literature in Maltese to read. Continually communicating and reading in English must have given him a propensity to think in English too. This might possibly explain why, when jotting down his aphorisms they came to mind in English. Anyway, why he wrote in English must remain a mystery.

'Exile writing' is an interesting phenomenon throughout literary history. In this case, what do you think your findings reveal about Dimech in particular and Maltese literature in general?

This must be the first extensive aphoristic composition in Maltese literature. This type of 'wisdom literature', as it is sometimes called, is not a common genre in the tradition of the Maltese. Aphoristic collections have a conspicuous position within several ancient societies. Apart of this particular genre of wisdom literature, there is the 'exile' aspect of the work.

As you noted, this is extensively explored in literary circles, and very much respected. What is interesting in Dimech's aphorisms is that, if one was not conscious that the work was composed during a time in which he was going through enormous distress and duress, one would remain unaware of it from the writing itself. This says a lot about his moral integrity. He does not dwell on recriminations or any kind of resentment towards his enemies. What comes clearly through his writing is his wholehearted belief in mankind and its advancement.

Manuel Dimech manuscript

Pages from Dimech's original manuscript.

What can you say about the contents of the aphorisms themselves: the literary style they were written in, and the themes that they tackle?

The themes which Dimech touches upon are as varied and contrasting as can be. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of his creation. Every aphorism changes subject, tact, language, emphasis and angle. The whole composition is certainly not boring at all. Furthermore, it's got wit. A lot of wit.

What would you say is Manuel Dimech's legacy to Maltese letters and culture, and how does this manuscript exemplify it?

Dimech is still in the process of being discovered by the academia. For many years, he had been given so much bad publicity, first by the Catholic Church and then by the so-called socialists, that he was relegated to the status of a mere intelligent riff raff; a sort of stalwart charlatan. The discovery and publication of the new manuscripts seem to be right on time. They reveal Dimech not only as an accomplished and artistic creator of beautiful literature but also as an author with impeccable English and an astounding mind. This should go a long way in charming his detractors and captivating a new class of admirers.