Flirting with conservative rebellion | Alex Vella Gera

As the powers-that-be finally vindicate Alex Vella Gera’s battle against censorship, the author returns on the scene with Trojan, a new novel penned as a direct response to the very same controversy that nearly landed him in prison back in 2009

Photo: Ray Attard
Photo: Ray Attard

Sometimes, the stars do align in your favour. And the lucky sod in this case is myself. Because just shy of a week after I booked once-controversial Maltese novelist Alex Vella Gera for an interview, a landmark legal amendment rendered him a topical ‘subject’ once again. 

Allow me to explain. 

Back in 2009, Vella Gera writes a sexually explicit story – ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’  (‘Fix What You Break’) – 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 in February of 2012, both Camilleri and Vella Gera are acquitted of any wrongdoing. 

As far as Vella Gera and Camilleri were concerned, the final acquittal marked the end of a long and stressful journey towards freedom. But in the wider scheme of things, that particular journey was only translated into national importance just this week. Legal amendments to the same law that Vella Gera and Camilleri fell foul of were officially announced by Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici, decriminalizing both pornography and blasphemy, and ensuring that anything that isn’t pornography is given leeway to be considered as an artistic work. 

So how does Vella Gera feel about all this?

“Well, I can’t say I’m in a celebratory mood, exactly… partly because I always knew it would eventually happen. I always felt as though I was on the right side of history on this point, so it’s not really a huge personal victory for me. But yes, it does mark an important step for the country as a whole. More than the censorship aspect as such, it’s the removal of the blasphemy law that I see as being significant. There’s a law that’s truly antiquated, and recalls a time when the Church would even interfere directly in local politics…”

But though the Li Tkisser Sewwi case was often viewed in terms of Malta’s culturally retrograde nature – in the political and media theatre of which Vella Gera and Camilleri played liberal martyrs – Vella Gera’s new novel appears to be directly pitched to counteract that version of events. 

Ominously (or mischievously) titled Trojan, and out later this month, Vella Gera’s new book concerns the life and times of Gianni Muscat, an aging and religiously devout one-hit-wonder novelist straining under the weight of modern life.

Having published a surreal work of fiction back in the ’60s, Muscat was lauded as one of the bright young things of Maltese literature, before a fateful trip to Prague with his friend – the louche fellow writer Philip Caruana – led to an uncompromising embrace of his Catholic faith. Roving across a number of different characters – but chiefly focusing on Gianni’s perspective – the close third-person narration makes us privy to Gianni’s internal monologue.

Those of you of an even mildly liberal inclination might find it hard-going. Gays, immigrants, pre-marital sex… it’s all unacceptable to Gianni, each an instance of yet another reminder that we live in a fallen world, one that is perhaps irretrievably so. 

But reading through the slim novel, and against my own default ideological settings, I found myself sympathizing with the old curmudgeon. Not so much on his individual grievances, but rather his sheer bloody-minded determination to stick to his principles no matter what. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with religious conservatives, whom I don’t think you can even call ‘conservative’ in this day and age. They’re almost rebels,” Vella Gera observes. “Someone who’s not in touch with Malta might assume that someone like Gianni represents the establishment – it’s a Catholic country, and so on – but do they, really?”

Noting my intuitive admiration of Gianni’s stance, Vella Gera takes Malta’s sudden spike in LGBTIQ rights as an example of how the tables have been turned, and the dangers of just drifting along with the current. 

“The developments themselves are without a doubt, important and exciting. But when I see a horde of people waving rainbow flags, I just feel disgusted. It’s just jumping on bandwagons. I have no doubt that a majority of these people would have been applauding gays being sent to prison, 30 years ago. It’s just a matter of the luck of the draw: you’re either born at a time when the herd mentality is on the right side of history, or you’re not. I’m exaggerating a bit here of course, but think about those people who came of age in 1930s Germany… 

“My concern is not whether you’re gay or straight,” Vella Gera hastens to add. “It’s whether you have a social conscience. That’s the only thing that interests me. The fact is that you’ll find plenty of gay people who are disgusting capitalists… which is probably why [Prime Minister] Joseph Muscat found no problem in ringing in all these changes – he just calculated that it wouldn’t cost him anything, and that it was perfectly in line with this pervasive laissez-faire attitude towards politics in general, where everything goes as long as it generates money.”

It is these disappointing ideological loopholes, this tendency towards compromise for the sake of facile popularity and filthy lucre, that ultimately makes Gianni Muscat’s perspective palpable, even to those – like myself – who wouldn’t normally agree on the details of his rants. Vella Gera confesses he found the process of delving into Gianni’s mindset invigorating, partly because the troubled aging author personifies a “no compromise” attitude towards life which Vella Gera finds “lacking” in all walks of life at the moment.

“Even among Christians, there’s this ‘turn the other cheek’ attitude, ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, stuff like that, which is abhorrent to someone like Gianni: no, you don’t turn the other cheek.

“Which is why he even admires groups like ISIS and the Taliban, he fantasises about that kind of conviction returning to his own religion. So to him this idea that homosexuals are ‘human beings like the rest of us’ doesn’t hold – by being homosexual you’re going against the word of God – you’re a sinner like all sinners, and you have to come to terms with that.” 

It’s this “steadfastness” that Vella Gera found most attractive in Gianni Muscat, so much so that the details about who and what he was attacking became almost irrelevant. The drive towards a democratizing blandness in contemporary society and culture, an attitude that favours a safe middle-of-the-road philosophy, is what bothers Vella Gera most of all, and he flags up a real-life example of him being in line with Gianni Muscat’s worldview, in a small way. 

“During the divorce referendum you had that group, ‘Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le’ (‘Christ Yes, Divorce No’). I really admired those guys. I mean, I disagree with absolutely everything they stand for, but I liked the fact that they had the guts to get out there and stand up for what they believed in.”

But it wouldn’t be entirely correct to say that Vella Gera assumed the Gianni Muscat mantle to engage in a calculated, prolonged thought experiment. In fact, he confesses that he felt an intimate connection to Gianni, one which “came about quite naturally”. 

“This is where I hang myself,” Vella Gera says with a smile. 

“The truth is that Gianni is perhaps even closer to me than, say, Noel, the protagonist of my previous novel, was, even though Noel was closer to me in age and general temperament… But this is the great thing about writing novels. You discover parts of yourself you didn’t know were there. It’s a great facility that writers have, and I feel lucky to be able to access it,” Vella Gera says, adding that “anyone who believes there is just one side to their psyche don’t really know themselves”.

“Gianni is as much a part of me as being ultra-liberal is a part of me.”

But beyond the arcane psychological process of being taken by a character’s internal logic unawares, Vella Gera also had a deliberate purpose for the book in mind. Revealing that he’d already started writing Trojan two years prior to the release of his previous novel, the bestselling Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi (‘The Snakes Have Become Poisonous Again’), Vella Gera wanted the book to serve as a fictionalized response to the Li Tkisser Sewwi case. 

“I wanted to get into the mindset of my enemies, as it were,” Vella Gera says with a smile. 

“To be honest, there’s also the fact that I was more interested in the people who criticized me, rather than those who supported me. Because the people who defended the story tended to be very insipid, and, well, false – like for example, saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the story, we hear that kind of language every day’…”

Which brings us to another key element of Trojan. Gianni being an author – albeit one that never made good on the promise of his debut – it was natural for Vella Gera to also shed light on the Maltese literary world that shaped him. Part of this was of course, a simple matter of placing a character within their appropriate context, while also serving as a professional gesture on Vella Gera’s part. 

“I wanted to talk about Malta’s literary history, especially now that I’ve become a part of it in some way,” Vella Gera says, revealing that even his choice of publisher this time around was a reflection of that. “My last book was published with Merlin, but I went with Klabb Kotba Maltin for Trojan – the clue is in the name, of course, but there’s also the fact that their back catalogue is pretty strong.” 

But perhaps more importantly to the fiber of Trojan, and also considering the fact that the Maltese literary scene offers “a compact world” within which the story can play out, engaging with local writers and their audience also played a direct part in Vella Gera’s overall mission – to respond creatively to the Li Tkisser Sewwi fracas. 

“While the case was going on, I was attacked by some luminaries of Maltese literature. And I wish I was a vicious person and I really gave them hell. But I couldn’t. Because I could see their side of the story as well. But the older generation of Maltese writers irritate me, I must admit. They’re presumptuous, they think they invented the wheel, and there’s a certain self-righteousness about them that is very annoying. So I felt they should be in the picture as well.”

Once again, Gianni Muscat’s uncompromising stance enters into our conversation. In this case, it’s to do with how Vella Gera imagines his protagonist would have reacted to the Li Tkisser Sewwi case, versus the lukewarm, and often hypocritical way Vella Gera’s senior predecessors addressed the issue. 

“I would actually have preferred a Gianni Muscat stance: ‘So you wrote this filth, now stand by this filth for six months in prison’. I could respect that position. But then don’t come telling me” – Vella Gera leans in, assumes a mock-patronising smile, “‘But did you have to use those words? Couldn’t you have found another place to write it?’ or ‘You could have used euphemisms, it would have been much more artistic’…” 

Beyond the fact that such an assessment misses the point of the infamous story – which was to illustrate, in an unfettered way, a particular strain of Maltese chauvinism, and also to “get certain words out of their holes and out into the world” – Vella Gera also notes that a lot of the criticism levelled towards him by these authors was often tinged with self-contradiction.

“Like for example saying, ‘The work was pornographic… but I don’t think the author should go to prison’. That makes no sense – pornography was illegal at the time, so if you think the work was pornographic… you see, this is why I would prefer the Gianni Muscat view. Because at the core of it, it’s my view. No compromise.”

But Trojan isn’t just one long Gianni Muscat monologue. It’s also a story about family – the Muscat family, an imperfect unit like all others, despite their patriarch’s dogged religious conviction. Incorporating marital infidelity, drug abuse and the fallout of both, the plot has a soap opera feel to it, employing sensationalist ‘beats’ to keep us turning the pages, offering a firm narrative ballast in which Vella Gera’s themes are allowed to play out. 

Why did Vella Gera decide to go for this kind of structure? The answer, as click-bait articles online would have you believe, might surprise you. 

“TV,” he tells me, instantly specifying: “Breaking Bad.” 

It’s amusing to think that a very local story like Trojan was at least partly inspired by the Emmy award winning, stratospherically popular American crime drama about a cancer-ridden chemistry teacher who resorts to the production of high quality methamphetamine. But Vella Gera assures me that he found the show, whose five seasons he “binge watched” while Trojan was already well underway, to be immensely instructive. 

“Breaking Bad was such a master class in how to tell a story, and how to take little insignificant things from two seasons before, and suddenly reveal them to be important after all. It made me realise how everything needs to mean something within the story, and I took it as a challenge to make the story as compact as I could.”

But the novel is also markedly different in tone from its immediate predecessor. Despite the intensity of Gianni’s rants and the many misfortunes visited upon him throughout his life, a playful streak is threaded through the novel – culminating in a particularly curious ending that signals a sharp departure for Vella Gera. 

“Sriep is about death. And in many ways, Trojan is about some kind of transcendence.” 

The impression the reader gets is that, in line with a desire to understand the religious experience, Vella Gera had broken through the oppressive bleakness of his previous work. In fact, though he claims that he “will disappear from bookshelves” for a long time, after Trojan comes out, it won’t be because the muse has fled him.

“My next project has actually been in the works for 23 years now, in some way or another. It will be a graphic novel. It will be in English, and it will have nothing to do with identity, social issues or politics. It will be more of a spiritual journey. And that’s all I’ll say.”