Book Review | Il-Lejl Tal-Irgulija

Albert Gatt scrutinises Sergio Grech's Il-Lejl Tal-Irgulija, which presents a microscopic view of a turbulent period of Maltese history.

My earliest memories of the political carry an air of claustrophobia, of the staleness of confined spaces. The year was 1987.  Every inch of space – public or private – had been sequestered in the service of the war. The occupation was not physical, but verbal: the country was covered in billboards, the odd graffito scrawled across them, posters pasted and counter-pasted on every wall; the air, occasionally rent by car horns, seemed alive with the distant hum of crowds barely contained.

These days, what I remember most about that time was the hail of metaphors. Like every generation, we were burdened with an imagery bequeathed by our forebears. In our case, the metaphors were all too often military. Whichever side you were told that you stood on, you erected barricades against the enemy; you read your life in terms of a hackneyed narrative whose protagonists were stark and without a hint of nuance. Soldiers of steel. Soldiers of Christ. The bastions of faith. The bastions to defend us from the open market. The struggle to join the succour of that market. And death, occasionally intervening to complicate the picture.

Rooted  as they are in events that took place in the 1960s, long before we were born, these stories are hard to unravel. To some extent, that is a task that devolves on the writer. Sergio Grech’s first novel is an attempt to do just that. As such, it is firmly rooted in a literary tradition that began to coalesce at the inception of these events, with a group of writers whose work marked a break with our homegrown romanticism and edged our literature across the boundaries of modernity. Where prose is concerned, the upshot was a kind of psychologically infused realism whose emphasis was on pitching the individual against the multitude.

To some extent, this is also one of the themes of Il-Lejl tal-Irġulija, focusing as it does on the familial and social forces that made Robert, its protagonist and a member of my generation, the paradoxical figure he is today. Grech’s primary concern, however, is not with the events and conflicts of the 1960s, as with their recrudescence in the generation that grew up in the 1980s, a generation whose parents often foisted on their children the dubious role of soldiers in a continuing war of narratives.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Robert attempting to (re)write himself and failing: Hu kien joħlom li kien kittieb imma ħassu li kien żbalja l-vokazzjoni... Ħajtu ma setax jorganizzaha fi vrus. Set against this mute inadequacy, there is Robert’s wife, an image of physical perfection whose primary role in this novel is to anchor the story in the present, for Robert’s present world is primarily presented through scenes from his marriage. Angele also acts as a counterweight to Robert’s stubborn interiority – she is  the only force that helps him breach his fortifications: Is-sur li bnewlu kien għoli wisq biex seta’ jaqbżu

These psychological bastions are a recurrent image in the novel. Perhaps inevitably, they have their roots in Robert’s childhood as a POW in a family conflict that goes back a generation. His father is a dyed-in-the-wool Mintoffian and self-described suldat tal-azzar; his aunt, Lina, is a strong-willed woman who has also donned the armour, though unlike her brother-in-law it is the gates of heaven that she has volunteered to defend.

It is between these two poles that Robert grows up, or rather fails to. He is protected and mollycoddled by his parents and receives spiritual nourishment from his aunt, who eventually dominates him, much to his father’s chagrin. Paradoxically, the barriers erected around him do not fortify him but make him soft and weak, earning him the epithet of Cissy at school. They protect him from History, even as History catches up and overtakes him, much as it catches up with and overtakes the country itself (Malta too is a fortress behind its bastions, one that the young Robert leaves only once, for a visit to the Vatican).

Robert is bemused by the conversations between his friends at school in the aftermath of the Tal-Barrani incident and the murder of Raymond Caruana; at the same time, his father’s socialist background makes him a natural target for his friends’ jibes. He has inherited the socialist mantle in spite of himself, even as his aunt’s ministrations ensure that his loyalties are firmly with the God brigade. He goes to a Church school against his father’s better judgement; he does not join the Brigata Soċjalista as a result of Lina’s resistance. His struggle for purity is consonant with the dictates of his immediate cultural milieu, but is doomed to failure when that same milieu offers the kitschy allure of nighttime Sicilian TV. His is a disjointed narrative; his person a palimpsest on which conflicting stories have been scrawled.

So much for the unmanning of Robert. The problem is that this novel is largely complicit in that process of unmanning, particularly in its adoption of a narrative technique that leaves little room for perspective, or indeed for nuance.

Grech likes his antinomies crisp: there is Robert, in his physical clumsiness and inadequacy; and then there is his wife in her glowing physical perfection. Robert’s father and his aunt are largely ciphers for two warring camps; they barely exist beyond the ideology they profess. Robert does not reveal himself, but is revealed entirely, through a discourse that peels back the layers of his past and informs the reader of all there is to know.

His own writerly ambitions are largely forgotten as the novel progresses. Occasionally, this third person narrative omniscience verges on the tiresome, as when Robert is referred to as “the protagonist”, or when the reliance on simile and hyperbole is taken to an extreme.

There is a sense in which the narrator is too much in control, much as Robert’s own relatives control him and insist on telling his story – or rather, stories. Robert will eventually achieve a measure of freedom when his aunt dies; the love of his beautiful wife will also unshackle him, though this final recourse to love smacks too much of the romantic panacea to sit comfortably with the rest of the novel. (Interestingly, while Grech’s narrative is rooted in the psychological realism of post-1960s prose, his descriptions of lovemaking often echo the poets, rather than the novelists, of that generation.)

Ultimately, however, Grech’s novel will resonate with many readers, not for the resolution that it offers, but for the attempt that it embodies to come to terms with a narrative that was inherited by a generation that has to date made little attempt to come to terms with it through its literature.