There goes a thinking man...

Honestly, though: you’d have to be a right royal… erm… ‘bird’s nest’, not to applaud such an astonishingly glorious send-off…

Oliver Friggieri. Photo: Ray Attard
Oliver Friggieri. Photo: Ray Attard

There are probably a good many reasons why I shouldn’t write any form of tribute to Prof. Oliver Friggieri. For starters, I can’t exactly claim to have known the man: even if… in a funny, roundabout kind of way… I sometimes felt I did: if even just a little.

Looking back, I realise that this has much to do with the many, many times our paths had crossed over the years. Quite literally, I might add: Prof. Friggieri was a constant presence at University throughout the years I frequented it, back in the 1990s. Besides, my father and he were colleagues in the Faculty of Arts for (quite literally) as long as I can remember. Their offices were, in fact, just a couple of doors apart down the same corridor…

So we certainly ‘knew’ each other well enough to acknowledge our mutual existence with a nod – maybe even a smile, sometimes – whenever we passed each other by on the stairs of the Old Humanities. Or at least: on those occasions when he wasn’t so deeply lost in thought, that he probably wouldn’t even have noticed being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger… still less, being nodded-at by a random (albeit vaguely familiar) student on campus…

Ah, but that, too, is enough to form at least an opinion of sorts. Actually, it accounts for both my first impression of Oliver Friggieri, all those years ago; and also, my last thoughts on reading of his passing this week.

‘There goes a thinking man’. (For so they all are, they who mumble to themselves while walking. They are, all of them, ‘thinking men’ …)

Not, of course, that this needed any confirmation: there was (and still is) his prodigious output – as a poet, novelist, short-story-writer, and not least as an academic – to bespeak it on his behalf.

But this, too, I felt I only ever knew from a distance. Like everyone else my age, I had to read at least one of his books – a collection of short stories called ‘Stejjer Ghal Qabel Jidlam’ – at school; and while that is certainly not enough to judge an author’s entire career upon…  truth be told, some of the mental images I took away from that experience – well over 30 years ago – still linger with me to this very day.

Like Barabba, for instance: the village undertaker who developed such a morbid obsession with his own death, that he slept with his own coffin underneath his bed…

That single image haunted me for years, you know. Barabba himself would even pay me the occasional visit in my sleep: rising out of his coffin, like a homegrown version of Nosferatu…

Which almost makes me wonder: could Oliver Friggieri possibly have been influenced by Bela Lugosi, star of the 1931 movie version, who famously became so obsessed with the role that he, too, slept in his coffin (and eventually even got buried in his Dracula cape)?

It is, of course, one of those things that is impossible to ever know, now. But even just asking the question makes me realise that – years before discovering Edgar Allen Poe, Dario Argento, or even Resident Evil – my first true taste of the macabre (and, subsequently, horror) was actually that Maltese schoolbook I so reluctantly had to read way back in, I think, Form Two (without, at the time, knowing anything about its author at all).

By any standard, that is the mark of good literature: though I regret to have to also add that (apart from using his Maltese dictionary of literature terminology over the years) I never really got round to reading any of his other works: except maybe a few random poems here and there.

But the point I’m trying to make is that: none of the above places me in any position to say very much about Oliver Friggieri at all… still less, to add to the voluminous eulogies by people who knew him much better.

Yet strangely, that is precisely what I feel compelled to do right now… if nothing else, because…

… try as I might, I can’t remember the last time so much genuine national respect (not to say ‘grief’) was accorded to someone whose accomplishments were, ultimately, academic in nature.

And it’s not just because of the State-organised funeral, either… though that was, in itself, a rather nice touch.

No, I reckon it’s more to do with the fact that – and here I might be speaking only for myself; and even then, only from a professional perspective – the passing of someone like Oliver Friggieri also brings with it a genuine sense of loss…which goes far beyond any personal feelings of bereavement (which, in any case, I myself have no justifiable reason to feel).

But that sense of loss? I do feel that, in a small way. And this is also what struck me most about the many, many obituaries and tributes that came pouring in, from all angles, over the past few days. Clearly, I’m not the only one.

There are, after all, only so many academic authorities, on so many subjects, in the world: and when the subject just happens to be your own country’s language and literature; and when – not to suggest that there aren’t any other experts out there, or anything – the single-handed contribution of that one academic has been so overwhelmingly huge…

…to be perfectly frank, the loss feels almost irreplaceable (regardless whether Oliver Friggieri himself, in his final years, was in any condition to contribute any further or not).

And yes: I’ll admit this may reflect more of a concern with up-coming generations, than with the one that is slowly eclipsing…. but then again, it’s just as true of my own generation, too (and we all know it).  To put it simply: Oliver Friggieri was undeniably the product of a more rigorous, disciplined academic process than anything we are used to today. And boy, did it show…

If nothing else, it shows in that dictionary he compiled: which means that even I - who have read next to nothing of his entire output – can easily see it, right now, with own two eyes. My own copy is staring back at me from the bookcase even as I write (somewhat reproachfully, I might add: which is hardly surprising, seeing as I broke its spine several years ago… and never really apologised.)

In brief, you got academe: and with it, a tiny glimpse, through a little chink in the wall, of a much vaster reality than you had ever previously imagined.

So even that naughty schoolboy, giggling and guffawing away to discover that (for instance) a certain Maltese anatomical term (currently much in use, to describe people you don’t particularly like very much) is actually an ancient Arabic term for… erm… ‘bird’s nest’…

Even that ridiculous, gleeful discovery will give that boy at least a rough idea of what his own language even is; and where it – and, by extension, himself – is actually coming from. And believe me: I’m not being facetious here. It is precisely discoveries such as these – trivial, in themselves – that broaden our narrow sphere of understanding, in any subject. If nothing else, they give you an indication of the sheer reach that even a single academic – or any expert in his or her field, for that matter – is likely to have.

By the same token, they also remind you of the sheer, voluminous work that must have gone into an endeavour like that: years and years of dedicated research, no doubt.

And that’s just looking at only one, tiny aspect of Prof. Friggieri’s entire life’s work; and without even taking into consideration the effect that so clearly had on the students he actually taught.

So even just for this reason alone, I was vaguely gratified – again, for want of a better word (it could just as easily have been ‘relieved’) – to see that sort of achievement finally given the respect and gratitude it so richly deserves.

And yes, I feel compelled to add this too: no offence to Maradona fans, or anything… but that sensation somehow magnified exponentially, when I also realised that not even the death of a football legend (in a football-mad country, no less) was enough to overshadow the public reaction.

It’s almost as though the last achievement of humble little Prof. Oliver Friggieri – whom I had seen so many times, meandering around the Tal-Qroqq campus, lost in his own private universe – was to somehow manage to dribble past the greatest footballer who ever lived…

Honestly, though: you’d have to be a right royal… erm… ‘bird’s nest’, not to applaud such an astonishingly glorious send-off…

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