Obituary | Frans Sammut - The last samurai

Charting Frans Sammut’s literary career might be akin to tracing the rise and fall of an erstwhile icon, and – if punning titles are anything to go by – stumbling at the point where public life and art clumsily collide into an unknowing hara-kiri.

Frans Sammut
Frans Sammut

Sammut’s legendary contribution to Maltese literature is indeed Samuraj, a little gem of a novel that epitomises the anti-heroic tale of home-grown narrative modernism.

In ironic contrast to his public profile – boisterous and booming (his characteristic rowdiness as headmaster and cultural advisor to Alfred Sant left an imprint on former colleagues), teetering on the fringes of the loony left and exhibiting the phlegm of the stereotypical Żebbuġi – his classic oeuvre is a tight and disciplined text chronicling the tragic demise of Samwel, an inadequate shying loner unable to come to terms with the stifling confines of Maltese society.

Trapped within a typical Maltese village, Samwel fights against all the typical moral strictures that prevent him from fulfilling his unique identity and his relationship with Żabbett, until he surrenders in a dramatic act of self-immolation reminiscent of the proud Japanese warriors whose tales and deeds are elegantly juxtaposed within the narrative’s texture.

It’s a meaningful surrender, universally interpreted as an act of tragic pride and a refusal to conform. Hence the paradoxical anti-hero tag, a winner of nothing but bittersweet, symbolic defeat. Sammut’s literary condemnation of his protagonist is probably also one of the most extreme solutions that modern novelists have dealt to their character’s tribulations.

The anti-hero, from Ellul Mercer’s and Orlando’s prototypes to the various modernist incarnations, invariably surrenders to his helpless destiny, either through total retreat, a cyclical return to the initial drudgery; or even by being happily swallowed back by the environment he desperately tried to flee.

But Sammut’s final solution translates into a clear condemnation of a society that stifles individuality and free will, dominated by the classic ideological apparata of the clergy and the various influential patrons of village life.

It is also the drastic remedy to the Maltese cage, as exemplified in his first novel Il-Gaġġa, a loose coming-of-age novel dabbling in stream of consciousness and still grappling with the stylistic challenges of a longer narrative, but already asserting a vital streak of individuality and lashing out at all societal mechanisms that impede Fredu Gambin’s personal development.

Samurajis indeed Sammut’s actual coming of age, a mature filtering of Fredu’s teenage angst, distilled into Samwel’s laconic declarations and his essential symbolic actions.

Fast forward some 20 years, and Sammut joins the anti-EU camp in 2002 and while not necessarily on the wrong side of history, refuses the potential opening of the suffocating cage and opts for a badly-plotted map of the country’s possible future.

Years before,Paceville, heavily marketed as the Generation X novel for the early 90s, had totally missed the mark, and failed in its attempt to chronicle a potentially fertile new symbolic ‘village’. Instead Sammut chose to moralise on the pitfalls of contemporary wasted youth, with the typical cliché-ridden depiction of fickle drug-addled teenagers and cringeworthy moments of tentatively racy titillation.

The irony of the rebel turning conservative is striking, especially in the light of Sammut’s creative peak having served as one of the main symbols of a literary generation that, on paper, strove to upset the literary canon and promote a creative revival coupled with a political engagement (the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju) albeit loosely defined, that would see the nation through a post-Independence world fraught with the excitement of the new, but also the questions about the unknown.

Sammut did however reach another peak. A man of letters with a keen interest in Mikiel Anton Vassalli, he published Il-Ħolma Maltija, probably one of the first conscious attempts at a postmodern narrative. Similarly to Eco’s Il Nome della Rosa, Sammut’s narrator is Vassalli himself, talking to the reader in the probable pre-modern Maltese of the time (through an accidentally discovered manuscript) about his dreams for Maltese nationhood. Back to the anti-hero, battling the forces that be and suffering ignominious exile and exclusion, or the posthumous hero, co-opted by partisan politics and reduced to a shallow icon.

Sammut may well be remembered for these contradictions.

His latest public foray took to task rebel writer Alex Vella Gera, standing firmly for censorship and the judicious selection by the chosen few of works suitable for the public’s delectation.

Irony has it that, hot on the heels of this unwitting controversy, Vella Gera publishes L-Antipodi, essentially revisiting the Maltese modernist narrative, that starts from a village like Samuraj’s, switches between continents, and consciously returns back to the cage, proposing a novel literary solution to the heroic dilemma.

From sixties’ rebel to virulent retrograde, the debate may not necessarily centre on who was the real Sammut, but embrace a wider debate concerning the Maltese artist, if need be the question of his integrity, the moment where the collusion with certain pressures of our distinct public life can bring into doubt the effectiveness of one’s artistic production.

Coupled with that, a re-evaluation, short of a polite debunking, of the myths surrounding Sammut’s wider coterie and literary generation, and the value and consequence of their artistic production and their political involvement.

A closing anecdote. As an AD activist campaigning for EU accession, I had been invited to a televised debate on the cultural aspect of the European Union. Sammut was representing the No camp. After rattling off the values of multilinguism and the prospects of employment for Maltese linguists, I asked Frans if he wouldn’t want to have the chance to see his novels translated and more accessible to the European public. It might have been underhanded on my part, a bit of a long shot, but Frans just shrugged embarrassedly, squirming in his seat and trying to hide from the camera his difficulty at being unable to retort, but ultimately, his pride for being recognised for what he really always was: an author.

Mark Vella is the editor of ‘Grajja Maltija’, a collection of Juann Mamo's short stories, published by Klabb Kotba Maltin.

Tributes to Frans Sammut...

Charles Flores

 

As ex-members of the Moviment, we were all angered by this new wave of censorship… we felt as if our previous battles were fought for nothing. More than anything Frans couldn’t stand hypocrisy, and was wary of individuals who jumped on the anti-censorship bandwagon purely to attract attention. He always had that quality… he could see through you.

He was a bit ‘rough’ at times. When he published a book about how to ‘read’ Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, I was of the opinion that he was riding the wave of sensationalism, and told him as much. Instead of getting angry, he laughed. He never rested on his laurels – intellectually speaking – and always sought to learn new things and develop his viewpoints.

Mario Azzopardi

 

We had a very close friendship during the MQL years and as co-editors of the avant-garde Il-Polz. Much of the MQL strategies were hatched at his house in Zebbug. What made me particularly close to Frans were his liberal attitudes and acute apprehension of reality. We were both on the radical side of the movement. We both loathed the temptation to turn it into accommodating institution. Frans had a moral imagination and a psychological perception that contrasted with, or complimented, his grasp of the comic. This explains, for instance, the writing of a parody he had devised for the stage, Meta Miet il-Poeta (The Demise of a Poet). He portrayed me as a defendant in front of a literary tribunal in the afterlife, being judged for debunking Dun Karm, the national poet-priest.

Adrian Grima

 

Despite the stubbornness of his convictions, Frans Sammut's best narrative is marked by very real characters who have acquired their own hard-earned individuality, men and women who will continue to honour the writer who allowed them to take charge of their own, often tormented, destiny. He will be remembered for the unyielding sensuality of his literary prose in Newbiet, the incorrigible egocentrism and machismo of some of his male characters, his unforgiving portrayal of the repressed puritan Sa Rożann, the deep anguish that lacerates Samwel, the harshness of Xandru the Poet violating the sacredness of the parish priest's desk, the intuitions, ideals and sheer beauty of the language of his Vassalli, the memorable opening scene of his novel Samuraj, and its denouement.

Alex Vella Gera  

 

I first met Frans Sammut when I attended a translation course back in 2004. He was my tutor. I was immediately drawn to him, his presence, his sense of humour, and his extensive knowledge not only of the Maltese language but of its history. But although I knew he was an author of some important novels, I never dared approach him with my work and ask him what he thought. Perhaps if I had, Li Tkisser Sewwi would have never seen the light of day. There were times in the last year and a half when I felt he was positively asinine in his outspoken and public criticism of that story.

As an author, his importance in the Maltese literary canon is undisputed. His command of its more arcane aspects and its Semitic roots, is to be envied. Coincidentally I was planning to read his much praised Il-Ħolma Maltija – I’ll now read it with a certain melancholy sense of loss. To be honest, I am disappointed he died before I got a chance to meet him and have a friendly chat about the whole issue. May he rest in peace.

Guze Stagno

 

Frans Sammut’s novel Paceville was one of the reasons I got into literature. The most important novelist of the 1960s and 70s he may have been, but when it came to contemporary youth culture he was hilariously out of his depth. Inbid ta’ Kuljum and later Xemx Wisq Sabiħa were my answer to Paceville. Literary polemics aside, I was saddened to learn that he passed away. In my teens I was an avid listener of his chat show on Radio One Live, and he was the inspiration behind my decision to change my name from ‘Joseph’ to ‘Ġużè’: I’d once heard him say that he had changed his from ‘Frank’ to ‘Frans’ in a fit of patriotism. Sammut gave us Il-Gaġġa, one of the greatest Maltese novels of all time. If only for writing that, I can forgive him pretty much anything. And that includes writing Paceville.

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