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Malta’s Achilles’ heel

Alex Vella Gera: Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi. Merlin Publishers. 2012. 526 pp.

On an island like Malta, one particular X-factor is likely to turn any book into an immediate object of discussion, hype and desire. That X factor, particularly mere months after his passing, is former premier Dom Mintoff.

Add an assassination conspiracy to the mix and you can see why Alex Vella Gera’s latest work, Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi, has been the topic of debates within local literary circles even before it was actually launched.

Of course, the fact that Vella Gera himself is as much a subject of discussion as the anti-heroes he creates also helps. It was he, after all, who threw the academic scene in turmoil by getting prosecuted for the now infamous short story Li Tkisser Sewwi.

Since the whole saga started, everyone seems to have forgotten that Vella Gera has also penned other (more valuable?) works, and his name, rightly or wrongly, will forever be associated with the story that challenged the country’s rather Baroque obscenity laws.

A thriller, a chronicle of Malta’s history from a sociological perspective, a love story and even a psychological study

Until now, that is. Sriep kicks off with a fictional scenario that will horrify half the island and titillate the rest. What if a group of ‘resistance fighters’ were to plot an assassination attempt against Mintoff at the height of the 1980s? Would the scapegoat upon whom it falls to pull the trigger succeed?

How would Malta be affected? And more importantly for the purpose of Vella Gera’s story, how would this change the lives of the scapegoat’s offspring?

Sriep is in turn a thriller, a chronicle of Malta’s history from a sociological perspective, a love story and even a psychological study. It is a work of fiction, to be sure, but if you read further away from the obviously fantastical plot devices, it is also the story of every Maltese man and woman of a particular generation.

It is the story of all those who grew up in the political strife of 1980s Malta and who – whether positively or negatively, depending on which side of the fence they stood – were forever shaped by the events of the era.

The plot kicks off with a political murder conspiracy and then follows the life of Noel, one of the sons of the prime perpetrator of this conspiracy.

Throughout the book, Vella Gera jumps between decades, between narrators and between point of views very convincingly, in what has now become his trademark style.

The majority of the story follows the psychological deterioration of Noel, a true anti-hero if there ever was one. Although the signs are not immediately evident, this is a broken man, his life forever ruined by his father’s mysterious disappearance years back.

After a highly surreal, but nonetheless intriguing, introduction, the reader is immediately lulled into feeling that he is part of the setting.

It is a setting we are so familiar with; the childhood where foreign branded chocolate was a thing of wonder; the childhood where Church schools spent months closed during Mintoff’s dispute with the Church; the childhood we all eventually grew out of, opening our eyes to possibilities away from our shores; the mass exodus to Brussels and Luxembourg; the contrasting pull between a freer life away from Malta and the love that most of us still feel towards the island, despite its shortcomings.

Noel’s dilemmas are the dilemmas the present generation of 30- and 40-somethings all share. You could say Mintoff was our Achilles’ heel.

This sense of realism contributes in no small way to the way the book holds you. And, being over 500 pages long, this is no mean feat.

The book addresses the very real fears people felt with regard to the Labour Party of the day. Mintoff would turn us into Arabs, Mintoff would make it illegal to be Nationalist, Mintoff was like Hitler, a cancerous tumour on the Maltese landscape.

Despite this being fiction, some of the sentiments professed in the book will undoubtedly raise the hackles of the politically-immature, particularly given that public feelings are still very much affected by the politician’s death.

For those who find the thought of a thick novel in Maltese scary, and I know there are a lot of you, do not be put off. Vella Gera’s style is extremely colloquial.

And by colloquial I mean his characters’ conversations happen exactly the way they do in real life.

Code-switching between Maltese and English happens throughout. Purists will not be happy but, let’s face it, isn’t this precisely the way most of us hold our conversations?

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the use of English words using Maltese spelling.

I think I actually recoiled when I saw brejkwater and wikend. Then again, as someone pointed out to me, language is a living entity that develops according to the wishes of its users.

In other words, if brejkwater has become the accepted way of spelling ‘breakwater’, who am I to protest?

However, and it is important to stress this, the book is not a political treatise. It is more a treatise on human nature, its weaknesses and strengths.

Vella Gera’s protagonist is singularly unlikeable, yet somehow the reader will empathise with his situation.

And when his world comes crashing down around him, you will feel as though in some way or another, yours has come crashing down too.

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