Malta is bigger than we think | Mark Vella

Publisher-turned-author Mark Vella tells us that his debut novel, ‘X’Seta Gralu Lil Kevin Cacciattolo?’ made him realise that Malta is actually far bigger, and far more mysterious, than we give it credit for.

Mark Vella: “Malta is pregnant with promise”
Mark Vella: “Malta is pregnant with promise”

“The thing is, I live in Luxembourg,” Mark Vella tells me roughly mid-way through our conversation about his debut novel, the Merlin-published X’Seta Gralu Lil Kevin Cacciattolo?, a two-tiered story looping back and forth between the 80s and the 90s in Malta, much like the cassette tape that the titular – and ultimately elusive – protagonist keeps like a talisman.

“But though Luxembourg is much bigger than Malta, it’s also a lot more polished and gentrified – a bit like a gated community. So a walk across Luxembourg city never seems quite so pregnant with promise as, say, a walk from Gzira to Sliema.

"There’s those dilapidated buildings in Gzira; but then you also have the poetry of the sea right alongside it, and if you were in Msida right before you would have moved from another slightly different landscape… there’s always something lurking… I don’t want to sound dramatic, but there’s always something there…”

Vella extends this aura of mystery to political lacunae that remain unresolved, despite Malta’s size.

“It fascinates me that we still have unresolved mysteries of this kind, even in a place so small and densely populated as this. I can only assume that this is the result of a collusion of God-knows what kind of political powers…”  

Noting that fiction writers have the ability to make Malta “bigger” by dint of an imaginative exploration of their landscape, Vella has latched on to the haziness that surrounds certain eras of recent Maltese history as the main engine of his first novel.

Split between the story of a boy – the titular Kevin – struggling with severe social inadequacy in the 1980s and who eventually goes missing, and a journalist, Mark – whom Vella describes as “inept” – working in the ‘90s, Vella confesses that the novel may not have a page-turning plot, describing its structure as being that of a looping cassette tape – another clear ‘relic’ from the era that the novel evokes.

In the case of Vella’s novel, the cassette tape is both a formal device and a key element of the story, as the socially awkward and put-upon Kevin – who has been described as being on the autistic spectrum, though Vella says he “never did any research” into autism – finds solace in a cassette featuring random recordings in various world languages.

Instead of plot twists, Vella moves his narrative forward by accumulating details: the hazy and haphazard impressions captured by Kevin in the novel’s earlier chapters, along with the more urbane – but equally inconclusive – perspective of the journalist who becomes obsessed with the mystery of little-boy-lost Kevin Cacciattolo.

“What the two strands have in common is that both Kevin and the journalist are baffled by the world in some way. Kevin because, well, he’s a kid, and Mark because he’s not exactly the most intrepid journalist out there – he’s sort of inept, actually.”

Having experienced the politically pivotal 80s as a child, it is perhaps unsurprising that the novel takes this oblique view of its social and historical landscape.

“I didn’t experience the 80s as a mature adult, so at that point I would only be vaguely aware of what was happening… I would see my father read the newspaper and grow concerned, things like that. But of course you later realise just how much of a burden the 80s really were for the people who grew up in that time. So it was interesting to me to try and present that era from these different points of view.”

The structure of the novel may also have something to do with the way it was conceived. Having begun its life as a potential entry for a young adult fiction competition, Vella later passed his manuscript through the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) wringer, before finally submitting it to another – and fateful – competition entirely.

Something of an international phenomenon among aspiring scribblers, ‘Nanowrimo’ challenges writers to churn out a 50,000-word manuscript over the month of November. Having decided that the young adult genre was too restricting for the story he was trying to tell – “you inevitably end up censoring yourself” – Vella found Nanowrimo useful when it came to building on the first two chapters of his novel which, focusing entirely on Kevin’s perspective, remain virtually unchanged.

Then Merlin came along.

“Just as I was editing a more-or-less finished manuscript, I discovered that Merlin Publishers were holding a competition of their own…”

This turned out to be ‘#abbozz’ – an ‘X-Factor’-style talent competition held at the National Book Festival last year, in which writers were asked to submit manuscripts for evaluation by a team of judges, as well as audience members voting on Facebook on the night of the event.

Despite receiving something of a thrashing by one of the judges (who were left in the dark as to the author’s identities), the novel ultimately emerged triumphant, a #abbozz victory securing it a publishing deal with Merlin.

This proved to be something of a role-reversal for Vella, who was previously known in the Maltese literary scene as the publisher behind Minima: the now-defunct publishing house that remains significant for midwifing the likes of Guze Stagno and Immanuel Mifsud (Vella describes the latter’s work as marking a new era in Maltese literature).

So how does it feel like to be on the other side?

“Honestly? I’m actually quite uncomfortable with being in the limelight. Mostly because I think the work should speak for itself.”