The strange contours of love | Immanuel Mifsud

One of Malta’s most celebrated authors, Immanuel Mifsud, speaks to Teodor Reljic about his latest novel, Fid-Dlam Tal-Lejl Harisna: a strange and often bewildering journey into the mysterious and often unforgiving world of sleep

Immanuel Mifsud
Immanuel Mifsud

You’ve warned me ahead of sending the book over that this is probably the ‘strangest thing you’ve ever written’. Why did you say that, and does this prospect excite you or worry you?

I said that because I do think it’s a strange book. Having a narrator who is basically a joke and breaking almost all the basic rules of narration, makes the book strange. I’m not at all worried about this and I wouldn’t even say I’m excited. I state this as a fact.

What was the main incentive for writing a book about people’s thoughts at night, and at the edge of dream-states? Was this simply a device to loosen your potential for imagery and unconventional narrative, or is there more to it?

I have long been interested in sleep, probably because I sleep very little and if it was biologically possible I would opt to do without it. I am not really interested in dreams as such but the falling to sleep, that slow or maybe sudden transition from the waking to the sleeping state, the loss of consciousness and the lack of control we have over sleep. 

I began reading a lot of stuff about sleep because I always do a lot of research when I choose a subject to write about and was surprised by the sheer volume of literature about sleep. 

What really intrigued me was that even the most scientific stuff I read introduced the subject by stating that sleep is one of the least understood of human activities. The very fact that sleep is still so unintelligible makes it all the more interesting. Not to mention that even sleep has a history. 

Having a history means that sleeping as an activity was not always the same. Throughout the years, people followed different sleeping rituals and schedules. And as with many other human activities, changes in sleeping rituals are intimately related to social, rather than personal, phenomena. 

For example, capitalism has changed sleep radically; so did electricity and urbanisation. Just to give one example, in the premodern era, people slept twice during the night (and even the concept of night has a history). People then talked about ‘the second sleep’ because the night itself was divided in two periods just as midday divides day in two. But what made me decide to write this ‘book of sleep’ as I keep referring to the book myself, was reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Fall of Sleep. Nancy has this habit to philosophize about everyday things and make the mundane look extremely interesting and philosophical. 

Having said this, my book is not a reflection on sleep. I think of it, basically, as a book about love: all the characters in the book have a love relationship of some kind, and all these relationships are extraordinary, in the sense that they develop in some peculiar manner. Sleep is a common thread with which my narrator chose to link the characters in his story. They all go to sleep. The narrator himself falls asleep. But the book is about love and about the act of narrating. The main character and the one which is present in all the novel’s chapters, is the narrator himself, probably a writer like myself – at least that’s what he claims – who has read Daniel Massa (he refers to him in the prologue), read Dun Karm (he stole the book’s title from the poet’s famous Evening Hymn) and has obviously read Joyce to the point of ‘borrowing’ the ending of one of his most famous stories. 

Ah, by the way, let me remind you that when you interviewed me about the previous novel I made a promise that the eighties won’t feature in my next work. I hope you noticed that I’ve kept my word. 

All the characters in the book have a love relationship of some kind, and all these relationships are extraordinary, in the sense that they develop in some peculiar manner
All the characters in the book have a love relationship of some kind, and all these relationships are extraordinary, in the sense that they develop in some peculiar manner

One of the story strands concerns an incestuous relationship. Is there a particular reason you chose to explore this phenomenon within the story?

As I said the novel is a love story, or a series of love stories. The intimate relationship between two siblings is one of them. Sometimes it seems that things just happen: these two fell in love. And may I point out that their relationship was not just sex but a very intimate connection. Both have their separate lives and relationships, but their intimacy and the need to express it keep returning because they are in love, they consider themselves to be siblings and lovers. 

A closer look at the love relationships in this novel shows that almost all the characters have a secret love which does not influence their – what shall I call it? – ‘official’ relationship. These siblings, like the rest of the characters, have their thing on the side too. I have never written about incest, and in our literature incest doesn’t feature much. I’m very interested in the way and the reason why people connect, about different types of love, different ways people express their intimacy and their different desires. Our society deems incest as taboo, which is why it is interesting to write about. While Western society, at least legally and scientifically, has stopped regarding certain sexualities, like homosexuality, as perversions, other forms of intimacies remained listed as deviant, for example incestuous relations. Of course, even sexualities have history. But let us not philosophize too much on this and keep it simple. As it happened, two characters of the book, two siblings, were also lovers.

How would you say the book fits within the scope of your other published work

I really can’t answer this. In a way it’s a continuation of what I have worked on so far: my endeavor to understand humanity. But this is such a cliché and an obvious statement, because what else can literature be  but the attempt to observe and interpret human life?

What’s next for you?

Since we’re almost at the year’s end, when people start making resolutions, I can already declare mine: more time to writing, less time doing things which at the end of the day give me little to no satisfaction. I’m looking very forward to 2017 because Arc Publications, an independent publishing house in the UK, will be publishing a selected collection of my poems, a project which was awarded a PEN grant. In the Name of the Father should be published in a number of countries. I shall be giving readings in Washington DC next February and have been commissioned to write and read a poem for a special event happening in London in March. And then in summer there’s the Mediterranean Literature festival organized by Inizjamed which is always a great honour and pleasure to participate in.

I am working on my next novel which so far is about cats. As long as I keep my resolution for 2017 it should occupy most of my writing time. But during the festive season I shall be writing next Carnival’s Qarċilla.

Fid-Dlam Tal-Lejl Harisna is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin