Another brick in the wall

Immanuel Mifsud is back on the frontlines of Maltese literature with a new novella whose haunting narrative of unrequited love across national borders belies a subtle investigation of local politics and recent history, TEODOR RELJIC discovers

Immanuel Mifsud: “We run the risk of encouraging a perception that it’s only the 80s that are worth discussing”
Immanuel Mifsud: “We run the risk of encouraging a perception that it’s only the 80s that are worth discussing”

“I really hope to one day stop writing about the 80s – honestly,” decorated Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud tells me at the tail end of our conversation.

We meet to discuss the author and poet’s latest novella, Jutta Heim, in which a philandering local actor, Erik Xerri, falls hopelessly in love with a woman – the titular Jutta Heim – after spending just one night with her in a then-divided Berlin.

Unsurprisingly, the ensuing back-and-forth narrative – which has the 80s as its temporal centre but liberally jumps back in time to the 60s, to ultimately culminate with the Labour Party’s triumphant 2013 election victory – strives for a parallel between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and post-Mintoff Malta.

So yes, here’s another book that wrings drama out of the fraught political situation during 1980s Malta. Hot off the heels of both Alex Vella Gera’s acclaimed Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi and, more recently, Mark Vella’s X’Seta’ Ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo? – both of whom shined an idiosyncratic light on the 80s milieu – at first glance, it’s tempting to slot Jutta Heim as simply another manifestation of a current literary trend.

It’s an impression that Mifsud is more than ready to confront, even admitting his own weariness with this apparently automatic tendency on the part of our contemporary writers. But apart from simply being repetitive, what’s more worrying is that an excessive focus on the 80s may ultimately result in a blinkered view of Maltese history.

“It’s got its ups and downs,” Mifsud says of this suddenly pervasive literary phenomenon.

“On the one hand it’s good that Maltese authors are tackling the 80s head-on and without any apparent self-censorship. But on the other, we run the risk of encouraging a perception that it’s only the 80s that are worth discussing. There’s a dearth of fiction about Malta during the Second World War, for example… you’ll find plenty of memoirs and non-fiction narratives, but not all that much fiction. And I find this pretty surprising, considering what rich dramatic fodder it is…”

Good thing that Jutta Heim doesn’t make any grandiose claims or indulge in sweeping statements about the era, then. Though the story is positioned at the centre of a political whirlwind, the bulk of the slim volume concerns the emotional turmoil our protagonist goes through in the wake of his brief but life-changing encounter with the book’s enigmatic titular character.

Despite the fact that – as the closely-focused third person narration of the book tells us – Erik Xerri has always found it easy to coast through life, especially where sexual partners are concerned, it is the otherwise unremarkable Jutta Heim that leaves an impression with him… which leads to an irrational obsession worthy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

“I’m glad that you mention a film, actually,” Mifsud tells me when I make this comparison to Hitchcock’s classic psychological thriller, in which James Stewart’s Scottie grows more and more invested in his pursuit of Kim Novak’s Madeleine – an elusive blonde, much like Jutta Heim.

“I like to think of the book as being structured like a film in many ways, since it liberally jumps from one time period to another, even from one country to another, without feeling the need to explain too much or cram in any unnecessary details.”

Sometimes it feels as though the deliberate gaps in the narrative, which pave the way to seemingly cinematic ‘jump cuts’, outnumber the chunks of story we’re actually given. Prose books – often those with a startling visual palate or delicate approach to metaphor – are sometimes lazily described as being ‘poetic’, but Jutta Heim is poetic in a more concrete way.

Instead of dutifully describing a character’s world and then propelling the story forward with suitably foreshadowed narrative developments and plot twists, it gives us cherry picked details – much like the carefully selected images of a poem – which accumulate to paint a picture of Erik Xerri’s life, and which are in turn buttressed by the recurring, almost ghostly image of Jutta Heim – who reappears at regular intervals, much like a refrain.

“I’m well aware that the many question marks that the book leaves might disappoint some readers. I would accept that as a legitimate critique. But at the same time, I’m really not a fan of books that indulge in too much exposition. So I wanted to find a style which mirrors that ambiguity. For want of a better word, I suppose you could call the book ‘minimalist’…”

But ‘minimalist’ here isn’t a byword for emotional detachment. If anything, the details that Mifsud selects are mostly emotional ones – in an otherwise carefree and hedonistically satisfying life, Erik Xerri is brought low by the one woman he could never have, and whose memory ensures that he never enjoys a sense of fulfilment despite his otherwise blessed existence.

This is of course tragic irony par excellence – Mifsud signposts this with a sly reference to an Ancient Greek text early on – but political realities that frame this deeply personal story may in fact be a reflection on how we experience political realities on a day to day basis. We too are restricted by our subjective viewpoints and distracted by our personal dramas to really have an objective, ‘God’s eye’ view on it all.

So it’s telling that, when I ask whether he intended the philandering Erik Xerri to be a stand-in for ravenous masculinity, Mifsud rebuts that he was in fact more interested in expressing something more universal, “narcissism, rather than chauvinism”.

“In fact, at one point in the story, one of Erik’s partners ends up ‘lending’ him to her best friend for the night... another female character with whom Erik has an affair who turns out to be pretty promiscuous herself. Since the story is presented primarily from Erik’s point of view, the tone may feel oppressively ‘masculine’, but in truth I wanted to express a kind of universal narcissism that goes beyond gender.”

But despite this pin-sharp narrative focus and a resolve to expand beyond the political situation of the 1980s, Mifsud doesn’t appear to be comfortable with the thought that maybe, more and more people are becoming “apolitical” these days.

“The political dimension will always infiltrate my work, whether I like it or not,” Mifsud says, speculating that this is probably down to his own personal experience while growing up.

“The only real difference in terms of political content, when it comes to Jutta Heim, is that I also shined a light on an international scenario. But either way, I certainly still believe that politics plays an active part in our lives – even in our private lives.”

Jutta Heim will be launched at Cettina Bar, Merchants Street, Valletta on October 30 at 19:00. The book is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin

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