Sex, secrets and the legacy of Mintoff | Alex Vella Gera

Last year, Alex Vella Gera was at the centre of the censorship storm thanks to a controversial short story which nearly landed him in prison. This month, he’s releasing a novel which centres on an assassination plot on Dom Mintoff’s life. Can this Brussels-based author stay out of trouble?

Novelist Alex Vella Gera
Novelist Alex Vella Gera

Sex and Mintoff.

Now that we have your attention, how do you feel about discussing the latest novel by Alex Vella Gera? The same Vella Gera who, up until February of last year was something of an enfant terrible of Maltese literature, having formed one half of the supposedly guilty parties in the contentious Realtà case?

(For those of you who don't remember, it went something like this. Vella Gera writes a sexually explicit story - 'Li Tkisser Sewwi' - and hands it over for publication to student newspaper Realtà, at the time edited by Mark Camilleri and distributed at University and Junior College. A series of unfortunate events - involving the campus clergy and the University rector - nearly lands the duo in jail on charges of obscenity. A public outcry ensues, and last February, both Camilleri and Vella Gera are acquitted of any wrongdoing.)

But although he claims that the Realtà saga has made him more cautious when it comes to tackling his fiction, his upcoming novel - Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi - barges into controversial territory from the word go.

Published by Merlin Publishers, the novel - which will be launched in Strait Street, Valletta on October 20 - is framed by an imagined plot on Dom Mintoff's life in 1986.

But although Vella Gera did not originally intend it to turn out this way, the Mintoff subplot began to take a back seat as he was crafting the 500-page narrative, in favour of the more mundane storyline - set in contemporary Malta, with brief stopovers in Brussels - concerning the psychological and social displacement of the prospective assassin's son, Noel.

Born into a Nationalist-leaning family and educated in private schools, Noel - described as something of a "touchy asshole" by his creator - begins to resent the trappings of the social bracket he was born into after he takes up a job as a translator in Brussels.

Translation is hardly an accidental trope for the novel. Not only does it represent a sizable chunk of the Maltese diaspora - who have seized upon the employment opportunities the practise offers in the EU - but it also touches upon the contentious issue of the Maltese language, which is unpacked for dramatic potential in 'Is-Sriep...' - in fact, the novel is written in a bilingual register, signalling Noel's own "cultural schizophrenia" while also prodding the Maltese readers' social pressure points (instantly flagging up the 'pepé'/'ħamallu' divide).

While this social fact forms part of the fabric of the novel itself - at certain points even having a direct bearing on the Noel's relationship with his peers - Vella Gera describes its employment as arising quite naturally.

"In a way, the writing of 'Sriep' served for me to resolve my linguistic schizophrenia, not by fighting it or even denying it, but by embracing it, which I guess is what many Maltese do, although not in the literary field generally speaking. I wrote English long before I wrote Maltese, and Maltese has been playing catch-up all the way through my writing years. 'Sriep' turned out to be the perfect platform to set the two languages side by side, instead of head to head, and for them to make something together."

The conflict between English and Maltese leads to more than one moment of tension in the novel, both with Noel's former school-friend, the now-affluent and supremely well-adjusted businessman Roger, and Roger's sister Frances, with whom Noel begins a relationship after he returns to Malta to tend to the rituals related to his recently-deceased mother.

"The personal is political, isn't it? You can't escape that. In the same way, writing with an intimate focus cannot escape the broader issues. It was partly unintentional. The political commentary, subtle and not so subtle, is just part of that intimacy. You can't escape politics, especially in its broadest definition in the way it forms the social, cultural landscape. The same way that politics is cultural. These concepts are intertwined and interrelated in ways we do not always understand, I think."

Neither is intimacy free from politicking, and sex - depicted frankly and often explicitly - is often used as another marker for Noel's own angst, and as a way of presenting his internal conflict (at one point, Noel realises that by having sex with Frances, he is effectively 'having sex' with his perception of Malta itself).

Given that the Realtà scandal was sparked off largely thanks to the explicit sexual content in 'Li Tkisser Sewwi', as I read through the many sex scenes scattered across 'Is-Sriep' I never really got the impression that - contrary to what he claims - Vella Gera was in any way apprehensive about the erotic content of his new novel.

"As a realist novelist, it never occurred to me to leave out the sex. It was important not to get repetitious, which I think I avoided, but on the other hand, the sexual relationship between Noel and Frances is a key point of the novel and simply saying 'they went into the bedroom and shut the door behind them' was not satisfactory. A relationship is not on hold during intercourse, but it carries on developing and evolving. So the bed is very much a key piece of scenery for the story.

"Also, perhaps I'm not normal, but I can't see explicit writing in terms of what is allowed and what isn't, or what is embarrassing and what is OK. It's what happened with 'Li Tkisser Sewwi' too, where I literally did not consider the possibility of being charged with obscenity. Although I must add that an earlier draft of Sriep had much more sex in it, but I cut down, simply to avoid repeating myself, so that was an aesthetic choice not any other."

Since the Realtà case largely centred around a brouhaha over sexual content, I ask Vella Gera whether he might be concerned about readers tucking into 'Is-Sriep' simply for titillating thrills.

"If people look out for my writing simply for the sex, they are going to be disappointed, because there isn't that much of it to justify a one-track-minded interest, and it is also usually sex with psychological overtones, not a simple 'roll in the hay' description to turn you on.

"The only thing I keep in mind when writing a sex scene is realism to be honest. Also, I don't like to see it through to the end, step by step, from foreplay to orgasm. I tend to focus on one particular moment and magnify it, use it to create something of an epiphany, not necessarily for the characters, but for the reader through the narration. Sex scenes sometimes are handy street lamps lighting the reader's way through the darkness."

However, he finds no problem with readers enjoying the visceral pleasures of a well-written sex scene.

"Having said that, I was told by someone who read the manuscript that the sex scenes made her want to have sex immediately, and I was extremely flattered. Because in my eyes that meant that the realism worked, meaning the story is rooted in real feelings, which create genuine intense emotions in the reader... one of them being horniness."

Vella Gera's deft grasp of what makes his protagonist tick as a rounded, fully-cultured and fully-sexual being, is what makes 'Is-Sriep' such an involving read. Employing the use of a second-person narration - "I felt it would increase that sense of being restricted, that sense of doom" - coupled with the unapologetic employment of a toggling bilingual style, Vella Gera makes Noel's seemingly humdrum concerns pulsate with a nervous immediacy.

Oblivious to his father's involvement in the plot on Mintoff's life, Noel and his younger brother Simon - a globe-trotting 'hippie' who succumbs to the cliché of embarking on a quest to 'find himself' in India - are presented as lost souls, drifting in and out of Malta with a hole in their consciousness that they try to fill time and time again, with little lasting success. This slow-burning tragedy is really the emotional core of the novel, and it's the glue that makes Vella Gera's social observations justified in a narrative context.

Does he believe Noel's predicament to be universal to all Maltese? Short answer: no.

"My impression is that many Maltese are perfectly comfortable in their identity and don't question much, because they don't need to. Both those who are exclusively English speakers and those who are pretty much the opposite."

This, however, gets Vella Gera's alarm bells ringing.

"I find the love of country quite disconcerting to be honest, and the pride people take in Maltese personalities who make it abroad, simply because they are Maltese. It's not a long way to go between that and scary jingoism, as is indeed very evident when the immigration subject crops up."

It was in order to avoid such oversimplification - in favour of closer-to-the-bone psychological truths - that Vella Gera wanted to "steer away from narratives dictated by the political parties".

"I tried to steer away from getting too specific about anything except the gut feelings of people, which is what I've always felt is missing in most Maltese political fiction. That gut feeling that cannot be brushed aside or censored, or made more palatable with a joke or a witty aside, or some satirical tone.

"In a way, this book is a direct challenge to that bipolarism. Not that I'm propagating a 'third way', which is really conservatism by another name. However, like Noel, I too am aloof from the tug-of-war of local politics because I find very little in it to rejoice over. I wonder who Noel would vote for. Probably AD, or perhaps he wouldn't vote at all, or then again, he might vote PL just to spite Roger... but I never get into these intricacies, because I find them very dull to deal with."

Introducing Mintoff into your narrative will get your novel politicised, however, whether you like it or not. Vella Gera does not hide from this fact, however he does deliberately sideline the Mintoff story - as mentioned earlier, this was something of a natural, 'evolutionary' development - though he does acknowledge the looming shadow that the late 'Perit' casts over the narrative... and all that that implies.

"Mintoff's impact on my generation is hard to summarise in a few words. Let me just say that I don't think it's a coincidence that [Dear Dom director] Pierre Ellul and I were school friends way back in junior school in the late 70s early 80s. Thirty years later, we are both looking back, and who is the man who seems to rear his head in our sights as we look back? Mintoff."

The figure of Mintoff was a presence in Vella Gera's drafts for 'Is-Sriep' as early as 2002.

"As I was writing it, it had occurred to me that if this is ever published, would I get into trouble with the guy himself? Would he take me to court or something?"

In what is perhaps a reflection of the way he's always tackled sexuality in his fiction, Vella Gera decided to transmute this fear into art.

"It made me even more determined to write about him, to overcome my paranoia (and the presumed paranoia of a whole nation, if you take what Pierre Ellul said at face value - that he couldn't get people to speak on camera about Mintoff).

"The fact that the novel will be out so soon after his death is neither here nor there, it's a complete coincidence. Now, knowing my luck and recent history, there may be those who say it's a cynical ploy... but it is not."

Perhaps it boils down to us having to conduct the interview via email (like his protagonist, the author is Brussels-bound), but Vella Gera, though forthcoming in many of his answers to my questions, is also coy when he wants to be... never more so when he expands on the creepy collision between fact and fiction signalled by the publication of 'Is-Sriep'.

"What is eerie about this book, and I'm not sure I should be saying this, is that certain things I wrote about - let's say six years ago - have now come to pass in my life, in some form or other, and this has happened over and over again (Mintoff's death in a way is part of this pattern).

"It's almost as if in writing the book, I was laying the groundwork for my immediate future..."