Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

It is high time that that book awards are moved away from Castille towards a public forum independent from any such interference.

Alex Vella Gera had aptly subtitled his refusal of last year’s Republic Day award with the legendary warning to the Trojans not to accept that fateful horse.

The rebuff, based on the suspicion of becoming yet another political pawn, has become as proverbial as the classic quote, after a recent hatchet job by It-Torca (Mintoff, KMB u s-Sriep Velenuzi f’Kastilja, 14 December, 2014), that took to task the seemingly anti-Labour bias of the National Book Award ceremony.

Although the anonymous article’s gripes were based on discontent with Mark Camilleri’s apparently heavy handed management of the National Book Council, the story’s main thrust simply belies any perceived change in attitudes towards culture and the moments when it gets uncomfortable. 

The article questioned the anti-Labourite sentiment of last year’s winning novel, Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, of which an excerpt was read at the award ceremony; naively forgetting that Camilleri, the current chairman, had publicly endorsed Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici’s electoral bid, having certainly never hidden his political leanings. Not to forget that Camilleri was also in the eye of the cyclone as publisher of the notorious Li Tkisser Sewwi short story that shot him and author Vella Gera to an unlikely fame and a long drawn saga on censorship and literature.

Camilleri and Vella Gera’s victory at the courts may have been heralded as a watershed for freedom of expression, maybe even a minor tremor from Labour’s social ‘earthquake’. The PL media had indeed caught on the story at a time where the PN government was grappling with all sorts of crises, and an event like this also served to cast a shadow on the state of artistic liberty in Malta.

Vella Gera subsequently found himself lobbed from one side to the other of the partisan net: the PN’s newsroom, which had formerly tried to associate him with paedophilia while actively supporting his prosecution, then capitalised, once the party was in opposition, on his apparently anti-government statement.

Today, the ball’s back in another court. It-Torca’s hatchet might seem blunted by a weak attempt at objectivity and balance: it strives to state that the chosen excerpt is still valid literature had it been read in a more appropriate context, but it still strikes deadly blows.

Probably unfamiliar with the novel, which is an original analysis of class and power and a vibrant re-reading of partisan political narrative, the anonymous writer takes to task a character’s analysis of Mintoff and KMB.

Ironically however, Vella Gera’s novel is anything but flattering of the PN’s narrative of the Eighties or its subsequent remoulding of Maltese society. Indeed, a standard dualistic myopia could easily classify Sriep as Labour-leaning. 

The naive reporter (or the malicious informer) surely had other axes to grind, and the article even suggests a pacifying par condicio by proposing that some sort of partisan balance could have been struck by also reading an extract of Mario Cutajar’s (current head of the civil service) Mintoff hagiography.

Obviously, the point of the whole book award ceremony, and also of literature is missed: not only does the claim for Cutajar’s book hold any water, since it was a winner of a minor category and thus cannot measure with the importance the Book Council has always attributed to the novel; but it also skirts the issue of literature as a vital form of cultural discourse that can shake the staid foundations of language, society and partisan political interest.

Political doldrums and the banishment to the wilderness of opposition are not only the results of purely political and economic choices. Culture, in all its varied nuances, plays a crucial part, not only in isolated aftershocks like the recurrent Vella Gera discussion, but also in the general perception of thegovernment’s attitude to expression.

Both Labour and the PN have been there, from the repression of the Eighties to the vague anti-liberal and conservative murmurs that culminated in the abstention on the civil marriage vote. But for Labour to promote its new image beyond the spectacle of reform, even minor incidents like the Torca article should be monitored, as they betray the real attitude of party structures and apparatchiks to any form of discussion that goes beyond the parameters set by power.

It is also high time that that book awards are moved away from Castille (another of the article’s qualm was the politically blasphemous desecration of power’s sancta sanctorum) towards a public forum independent from any such interference.

The National Book Council should also take on another legal form, such as a sort of quasi-NGO format, which though funded by the government and accountable to it, still retains a considerable autonomy and does not do anyone’s political bidding. It is in the interest of freedom of cultural expression, and could also serve as a step towards a more dynamic participation of the book industry in the nation’s cultural life.

Mark Vella is the author of ‘X’Seta Gralu Lil Kevin Cacciattolo?’ published by Merlin