Book Review | What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels

Noel Tanti argues that just like Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep reġgħu saru Velenużi, Ġużé Stagno’s latest novel dissects the ‘Brussels generation’ with aplomb, and is far from being just an erotic romp through the Euro-capital.

Detail from an illustration by Jimmy Grima, appearing in Guzé Stagno's latest novel - What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels.
Detail from an illustration by Jimmy Grima, appearing in Guzé Stagno's latest novel - What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels.

I didn't want to like What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels. I thought that Ġużé Stagno's previous book, Ramon u ż-Żerbinotti, published five years ago, was simply perfect: a Polaroid of juvenilia melitensia enmeshed, acclaimed and confined within the early years of a decade that sounded the true death knell of the millennium. (The countdown from 10 seconds to 2000AD was a mere formality, at least four years late...)

Also, it was a book about me, one that I could have written but didn't. Mr Stagno obliged, and there were many others of my generation who felt the same way that I did. Hence the affection.

Thank you, Ġużé.

Before Ramon I was aware of Mr Stagno's work but never really liked it. Inbid ta' Kuljum was a frustrating reading experience, akin to listening to a band's greatest hits and greatest misses concurrently.

But this was a debut novel, and only the blind and excessively stupid could (and did) fail to notice that this was the work of someone who meant business, someone who was still trying to find his feet but was in for the long run. A few years later, Inbid was followed by Xemx Wisq Sabiħa, a book which I remember enjoying and forgetting almost immediately.

At the time I was devouring one Irvine Welsh book after another; I don't know whether this is relevant or not.

And then there was Ramon, the novel in which Mr Stagno married his idiosyncratic prose to a stronger command of the language and a greater awareness of narrative axioms, all of which he was not averse to turn on their own heads and use to his advantage.

His amazingly judicious eye for detail (he would make a great assassin) rounded it all up by summoning a splinter of Maltese life at a particular point in time that, to my knowledge, had never been covered before.

(If for nothing else, Ramon and Brussels should be canonised for historical reasons. In a hundred years' time, these two novels will provide a precious picture of Maltese trials and tribulations, just like the oeuvre of other Ġużejiet.)

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and this is where I believe Brussels trumps Ramon. The latter had the benefit of 15-odd years of mulling over, of thinking and tinkering with that kind of foreign country, whereas Brussels is a lot more immediate.

The story throws us back a couple of years but that's it. No mean feat, to be able to stare right into the abyss when there's nothing but a thin veneer of months separating you from your shadows.

Mr Stagno shows that he's got his typing fingers securely placed on the nation's pulse and knows well what makes it tick and throb. His description of the Maltese contingent visiting Brussels is spot on, and I can say this because I went through a similar experience when the devil possessed me to go on a chartered trip to Corfu. Bebeto, Maria Pija, Terry - I've met them all. Aw raħaaallll!!!

However one must not mistake a light approach for shallowness. First and foremost, writing prose that reads effortlessly is no mean task. Anything you want to put down on paper is the result of fastidious decisions, several changes of heart, mood and disposition, and a gazillion other factors. This is true for staccato sentences as well as for Pynchon's Pynchonesque paragraphs.

Secondly, what you say is just as important as how you say it. After Alex Vella Gera's Is-Sriep reġgħu saru Velenużi, this is the second novel in Maltese in as many years that is a Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide bike revving its disappointment at the Schengen Dream.

Mr Stagno opts for a (very) funny approach (at times fantozziano) but it's evident that the disillusionment is steadily trickling in from Brussels e dintorni. It seems that great expectations delivered little beyond the immediate monetary perks. (Even these are somewhat sneered at - just compare former lover Alexia's living quarters with what's waiting for our protagonist, Gustav, back home.)

Larissa seems to be having a great time working, partying and screwing everything that breathes, but her life is ultimately as insular as that of il-Bebeto. She may speak better English and she may have a better education, but the Maltese bug is not one to be easily overwhelmed by an accent and a degree. (And, after all, should it?)

The island is a state of mind and its inhabitants satellites that orbit wide but are still firmly attached to the rock, having become islands in and of themselves. (Hail Gilles Deleuze.) Ditto Alexia, who, despite having all of Europe at her fingertips, still yearns for her Maltese ex.

Apparently, what happens in Malta happens in Brussels but with trains. Ajma dawk it-Twistijs.

Noel Tanti blogs at Nigredo's Room.