[WATCH] Diary of L-Aqwa generation

With their riotous representations and garish colours, Ryan Falzon’s bold artistic oeuvre has been crowned by the surprise hit of his millennial-manifesto Sajf – a chronicle of Malta’s summer ennui, sex, sea, hooking-up... and some tinkering on an old BMW. So, what will he do next, MATTHEW VELLA asks.

It’s hard not to be struck by the garish, punk, ‘D.I.Y.’ assault on the senses that marked Ryan Falzon’s work of pop art: referential works that illustrate common denominators from the world of Maltese thuggery and criminality, familiar tropes from the worlds of the unsophisticated and undesirables, from clapped-up Escorts to renders of St Paul of Tarsus, from Travis Bickle to the Baader-Meinhof gang, or St Francis of Assisi with effigies of stuffed birds of prey. Much of this early work has been punctuated by his bold strokes of uncompromising colour, primitivist renditions of men, women and animals, and never without a commentary or theme that concerns the zeitgeist that Falzon’s artistic and literary career is so clearly preoccupied with. 

During the pandemic, Falzon’s love for plants and gardening produced his first series of lockdown art, that soon developed into a series of works over the two years that followed. They appear to represent a radical departure from the freely transgressive work of the younger artist, but again, it is hard not to feel the unbridled enjoyment with one’s surroundings in this work: the joyful representation of gardening and flora in settings so familiar to the Maltese, gives us an art that is redolent of the island and its tropes, maybe a gas cylinder in a back-yard surrounded by pots and plants, ferns climbing out of used paint buckets, ornate house furniture or gaudy paraphernalia. 

Falzon always acknowledges the world he is in through its crude references. His first novel Sajf is as much a chronicle of fellow millennials as it is a reflection of unassuming ordinariness – filtered over the course of a three-month Maltese summer – that depicts a very recent passage of time, comfortably termed through Labour’s celebrated slogan of its Muscatian era, ‘l-aqwa żmien’. And while not as visceral as the repudiation sung in Brikkuni’s ‘Alla Lliberani’, Falzon’s Sajf is also one of the voices of this same generation which both dipped their feet as well as got their hands burnt by the excess of Malta’s steroidal growth. 

The following are exerpts from the interview. 

Follow the full interview on maltatoday.com.mt and our Facebook and Spotify platforms 

Sajf was an instant literary hit. How satisfying has it been for someone whose career in art precedes this literary work? 

I would be lying if I said I’m not chuffed... the book reached people far and wide, the reception was positive, and Sajf is certainly not the most conventional of reads, for it can be quite blunt in what it says – nothing unique in these days when it comes to work that ‘shocks’ – but that was the kind of response I wished it to elicit. 

What was the seed that gave birth to Sajf, given your storied career in the world of art, where you also exhibit outside of Malta, in Berlin? 

I had been writing for quite some time – since 2011, 2012. But it was something that came in bursts and sprouts. Then in 2018, I started putting together this loose manuscript on the Maltese summer phenomenon, stitching it together gradually, and as I discovered the substance that gelled it, I spoke to Glen Calleja who was then just setting up Kotba Calleja. 

Sajf gives us a fresh look on a particular, let’s call it new, Maltese generation, one to whom you belong to as narrator... shall we say it is bit of a ‘smartphone’ generation? Glued to the screen, angling for likes and shares, sexually fluid and adventurous... maybe it sounds old to point it out, but I’d like to characterise it as clear difference between one generation and an older X-ennial generation that came of age towards the end of the 1990s. 

It is a testimony for millennials, which I feel was sorely needed. But I wouldn’t place them squarely as post-2000 kids... these are the L-Aqwa Żmien generation, kids from the 2010s.   

That comes across in a very subtle tone. You certainly don’t need to use overt characterisations to place the reader in this post-2013 Labour era...  

Yeah, it’s present with the problems of high rents, of flowing cash, a kind of pre-pandemic excess... a generation of kids born in the 1980s, maybe 90s, who remember pre-internet days, no smartphone, a kind of frontier world of sorts. But then we’re not the generation of Tik-Tok either. So many more sjuf are yet to be written about that generation.   

As Sajf’s narrator, you reflect a kind of welcome ordinariness. There’s no ‘anti-hero’ narrative, you’re not really imparting upon the reader some hidden truth... you’re more of a diarist, chronicling a summer chasing thrills or female companionship, working on that car – an actual passion of yours... how important is this ‘ordinariness’ to you? 

It would not have been in my interest to create some Samuraj type of anti-hero, a sort of emarginated messiah ignored by the rest of society. Sajf is all doubt – from beginning to end. The narrator doesn’t know what he wants, and the day after he is second-guessing what he gets and wants, something I feel is synonymous with the age we are living in. And I did want the book to document this day-to-day existence from one month to the other. I did not want it to revolve around some event or fill it up with ‘action’... there is no dialogue either: it is essentially a long monologue.    

And Sajf never tries to detract or knock down what is easily derided as Maltese ‘provincialism’. That kind of Malta-bashing has become so tired... 

Yes, it’s easy to mock someone whose car is all souped up and garish, to deride ‘ħamallaġni’, or to ham up the ‘only in Malta’ complaint. A horse being carried inside a car? It really doesn’t happen only in Malta... we are a small place, we have our press, our social media, and our online gossip, but these are aspects of any provincial town elsewhere. It is what it is, with all its quirks: Malta can give you so much fun, and it can drive you up the wall. And perhaps, we think we are special because we are an island, whose insularity easily can become a complex that truly informs the way we grow up. 

You know that a Book Council member’s anonymous ‘literary review’ was taken down after Maltese writers and PEN Malta created a big fuss out of comments made by a person whose role as manager impinges upon their access to funds or awards… do you find similar situations in the world of art? 

You’re calling it ‘big’ – it really is not. It just made a lot of noise. In this case, and I say this knowing that it bothers me, the reality is that when you hail from an institution, your hands are tied by that employment, or ‘professionalism’ for want of a better word. Having said that, what was said or criticised, did not shock me… in the world of art, criticism tends to be whispered in a few ears but never committed to publication through a critical voice. And right now, there is a big thirst for criticism, because it is a world which can simply churn out anything it wants, with press releases copied and pasted onto the press. 

Now the question is, are we ready for the hard knocks of the critic, and is the critic’s skin tough enough for the job? Critics must be critics: they cannot be curators, writers or editors. They must be able to command some neutrality in this small world of ours. Their own experience and knowledge must inform their status and respectability and that means, not every Tom, Dick and Harry can really do that job. You must have really proven your worth in becoming a critic. Anonymity certainly does not give weight to that status. But then, an ‘anonymous’ critic with ties to an institution? That leaves a bitter aftertaste that can never go away.