Turning ourselves into human capital

Razor-penned funnyman Wayne Flask tells Teodor Reljic why his debut novel, Kapitali, is more of a howl of despair than a mechanism made to tickle us into distraction 

Wayne Flask (Photo: James Bianchi/Media Today)
Wayne Flask (Photo: James Bianchi/Media Today)

“So you want me to come to a protest, and then you won’t even fucking let me carry that?!” 

The setting is one of Valletta’s most beloved hangouts for hipster-and-hippies and all the subcultures in between, and the man speaking is Wayne Flask – a spiky agent provocateur who made a name for himself through acerbic blogs and social media pages like ‘Satiristan’ and ‘Lehen Id-Dnewwa’. The ‘that’ which his long, bony finger is pointing at is a concise black-and-white slogan whose philosophy has become something of a stock-in-trade rallying cry for a majority of the regulars who frequent the establishment we’ve picked for our interview spot. 

It’s a sticker that says ‘PN – PL – Zviluppaturi: Qazzistuna’. 

Flask’s gripe is that the so-called Civil Society Network – one of the main organising bodies of both last week’s and today’s protest actions held in the wake of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder – is not only banning people from carrying partisan placards, but ‘anti-partisan’ ones too. 

It’s a gripe whose underlying concerns Flask has recently unspooled over the odd 300 pages or so. 

Kapitali, his debut novel – coming from Merlin Publishers this coming weekend at this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival – is, in fact, a work of political satire which speaks through a cacophony of  voices, all the while being activated into angry being by one key concern above all: the Islands’ inability to surmount the political duopoly under whose yoke we are forced to live. It’s no accident that the book – which charts the journey of two young would-be politicians across the political divide, both in the run-up to and in aftermath of the 2013 and 2017 elections – is dedicated to the likes of Kamp Emergenza Ambjent, Moviment Graffitti and anti-poverty campaigner Charles Miceli; individuals that Flask considers to be legitimate beacons for that which the recent large-scale protests in Malta are supposedly rallying for. Justice.

“I feel that these independent voices are constantly shut out of public discourse. In fact, I feel that PN-PL have hawked the public discourse entirely – everything we speak about seems to be controlled by these two parties, and the people who back them and finance them,” Flask says. 

“And Kapitali is my stab at the establishment.” 

But the establishment is something of a loaded word, and its complicated nature is part-and-parcel of the narrative that informs Kapitali (the clue of what it’s all about is in the title, though). 

“We’ve been hearing about ‘the establishment’ a lot recently, but nobody seems to be getting it right. I mean, the establishment is not just about political parties, first of all. You’ll find an establishment dynamic even in, say, an organic farm,” Flask quips. It’s a glimmer of his trademark humour, which tends to arrive as a cheeky sting at the end of a serious political remark. But it’s a feature that is, if not entirely absent, then used very sparingly during Kapitali itself. 

“The difference with a novel – and it’s a pretty basic one – is that the reader can take more time to digest what’s being said, unlike, say, a fleeting Facebook post, or even a blog. This is something I’ve been building towards, so it feels like a culmination of sorts,” Flask says, insisting that he would never refer to himself as an “artist”. 

“But either way, this is the most sustained and honest way I feel I can express myself about our political and social situation.” 

Told in a roving first-person perspective that will be familiar to readers of Game of Thrones – though Flask’s influences cleave closer to Irvine Welsh, even in this regard – and in an unapologetically bilingual register – an echo of another local writer, Alex Vella Gera, whose Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi Flask acknowledges as a key inspiration – the novel uses the fates of Daniel Borg (PL) and Robert Rutter Miceli (PN) to navigate the minefield of the local political scenario. 

But the character I predict will leave a more enduring mark on readers is one Saviour Fiteni. A clear-cut case of ‘If he didn’t exist, we would have to invent him’ – as Flask himself just did – Fiteni is a highly charismatic fixer working behind the scenes to manipulate the fates of both Daniel and Robert, in a way that would benefit the political duopoly at any given time (if we can indulge the Game of Thrones analogy for a little longer, Fiteni would be the Littlefinger of the piece). Fiteni has no qualms about crossing party lines in his mission – for him, the point is not to support one party or another, but to make sure the tug-of-war between the two remains the dominant force over Maltese society. “Although the main spark for that character emerged from my research into similar figures during the 80s and 90s in Italy – where you had journalists being murdered by the mafia, another element of it all that I sadly wasn’t expecting to become relevant here as well – he is actually an allegory for various forces that control Maltese society. He is, in effect, control itself.”

This all begs the question of whether Flask believes that the lines that are drawn up between the two parties are really just a superficial veneer for the benefit of the gallery... 

“To answer your question, yes. Absolutely, yes,” Flask cuts me off. “There is nothing substantially different in policy between the two parties, who have ‘mind-control’ over a large swathe of voters. I mean, this is clearly a struggle for power, but it’s a struggle that has nothing to do with whoever is in government. There are other playgrounds where power manifests itself. Planning and construction being one of them...”

In fact, Flask’s trademark satirical stabs come down all the sharper during the scenes which depict planning abuses. Both Daniel – as a budding fresh face in politics warmly coveted by the Muscat milieu in the run-up to 2013 – and Robert – as a lawyer who cannot resist getting sucked into the rewards reaped by the over-development craze – help Flask paint a picture of what he assumes to be the battleground of planning abuses. 

But how much of these backroom – or not-so-backroom – dealings in various offices and board rooms are down to hard fact, and how much of it is conjecture?

“Most of it is gut feeling about the way things go but I have a suspicion that I might not be that far off the mark. Anyone following Planning Authority tribunals on Wednesdays and Thursdays notices there’s a clear pattern that emerges. Let’s not kid ourselves. There are policies that are meant to be broken...”

But just like the character of Saviour Fiteni stands in for a varied number of social and political evils of our country, so does planning, for Flask, present a ‘tip of the iceberg’ scenario. 

“Our failures in planning also flag up issues of enforcement... of a ‘culture’ that has no qualms about allowing certain things to just happen. But an even deeper layer of all that – and something I really wanted to bring up with Kapitali – is the question of where is the money coming from, and where is it going?”

Hence the clue in the title. And it’s also another thing that cuts across the political divide, and hints at what’s behind Flask’s skepticism of any protest action that treats being ‘anti-partisan’ as taboo. 

“What I find rather hypocritical is certain individuals who criticise the ‘rule of law’ while they themselves earn money made from the sale-of-citizenship scheme. And where does that money go? I can tell you for a fact that a lot of it is going into property. So yes, let us have a chat about the dirty things that are going on in our society. Let us have a chat about dirty money, and where it’s going...”

Kapitali is published by Merlin Publishers. It is available for sale on Merlin's website and in leading bookshops as from this week.