The man with the child in his lines
Great humour is usually born out of fear. Yet Trevor Zahra's winking words are the giggling midwife of childhood happiness.
Winks, on the other hand, could be the physical equivalent of an exclamation mark. But they are not. Winks are endearing appreciation, a naughty "to be continued", a little ditty the eyes sing.
Trevor Zahra's writing winks. In his latest two publications, the novel Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa and his autobiography Il-Ġenn li Jżommni f'Sikti, Mr Zahra's pen scampers with ease through the complex tapestry of the Maltese language, weaving words that are best eaten with tongue firmly in cheek.
"For me, humour is not a literary tool, but a perspective," Mr Zahra tells me. "It is how I see the world and translate it. One of my biggest fears is that I become morbid, which is why I do not take myself seriously, neither in real life nor in my autobiography. This was my main concern when I sat down to write Il-Ġenn li Jżommni f'Sikti. Writing an autobiography entailed putting my own life under a microscope, with the risk of seeing my life larger and more important than it actually is. It is humour that kept my life in perspective, helping me see other things than just the me, myself and I. Also, in the autobiography, characters from my previous works, like Kunċett and Marinton, is-Surmast and the Fenek l-Aħmar, interrupt me to burst my bubble lest I start taking myself too seriously."
"I would not describe Il-Ġenn li Jżommni f'Sikti as an autobiography. Rather, it is a fictional biography. I used my life to write a novel. After all, everything that I have ever written is to some extent self-referential. In all my books I am present in a character, a trait, a situation, a conversation, a word."
In Il-Ġenn li Jżommni f'Sikti, Mr Zahra recalls the happy childhood of a boy thrilled with the discovery of words, theatre and music. "I remember the first time I read Enid Blyton's The Treasure Hunters, I felt myself stepping up to adulthood. Words, and the way they sit next to each other to talk, reminisce and argue, opened up a new world. I found the process of writing like the author walking into a dressing room - you dress up as your characters, put yourself in their situations. The more words your vocabulary has, the better writer you are. Writing and reading were my most important discoveries, and continue to be so. Especially, it is the musicality of words that I find fascinating. When I write, I read aloud so I place words according to their musicality, rather than meaning or syntax."
"Writing is also the ġenn in the title. But then, any form of art requires a strain of madness to give it birth and keep it alive, and necessitates that the artist keeps grey normality at a distance. Writing is my madness: the madness that compels me to create characters, talk and flirt with them, and miss them."
"My autobiography tells of a very happy childhood. Yet memory is fickle - I can remember our first telephone number from decades ago, yet I cannot recall more important things. Which explains why I did not want to write an autobiography when I am older and senile. It is not that you forget, but you misplace and lose the order of memories."
Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa, a double launch with Il-Ġenn li Jżommni f'Sikti, marks a departure for Mr Zahra. Following the sexual awakening and fulfilments of Ġenoveffa, the novel is more adventurous than any of the author's other books. Yet it is still Mr Zahra's voice the reader hears; a voice conscious that a wink can say what a hundred words cannot. At times the author is explicit, but mostly he suggests, letting the reader fill in the blanks.
"This is an approach I have recently used in my play, Minn Wara ż-Żipp - mixing in the right measure of spice without overdoing and ruining the taste," he says. Yet even here, Mr Zahra spikes sex with a heavy dose of humour.
"We always think of our mothers and grandmothers as asexual beings," Mr Zahra adds. "Our take on the past is of an age when sex was a male domain, and women had to obey and humour their husbands. Yet it is like Gulliver's Travels - everyone has read the abridged version but not the full one. The same with our grandmothers and mothers - everyone sees them in a fertility context, yet underneath the għonnella, every woman was intellectual, moral, sensual and complex. In fact, the women in this novel are much stronger than the men."
"Ġenoveffa is a woman for whom sex is not a duty but a fulfilment and a mutual pleasure with Zanzu, her husband - hence the humour and laughter. I wanted this grandmother to recall her life's passions, from a 19-year-old to a widow, as a healthy engagement. The ending, with Ġenoveffa on her husband's grave, is not a resignation to death. Rather, it is a celebration of life and love."