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Zero the hero

AKTAR STEJJER TAR-RONNIE
by Joe Friggieri
Media Centre, pp352, ISBN 978-99909-2-109-0

Much to this reviewer's joy and delight, Joe Friggieri is back with 20 new stories featuring ir-Ronnie, Maltese literature's most lovable underdog since Ġaħan dragged his mother's front door all the way to church.

The original collection, L-Istejjer tar-Ronnie, was published by Media Centre way back in 1994. Such was its success with local readers, it was even turned into a teleserial (a small-screen atrocity starring the late Josie Coppini that is nowadays best forgotten). As the author himself states in the foreword to Aktar Stejjer tar-Ronnie, it was the success of the original batch, added to the constant nagging of the book's many fans, that made him sacrifice his precious summer holidays and put pen to paper once again.

For the uninitiated, ir-Ronnie is a middle-aged mechanic who works with the Motor Repair and Servicing Company. He is married to a harpy of a wife, the eternally nagging Doris and is the father of four children, two of them twins. The stories revolve around his daily misadventures. In Gladiator 2, ir-Ronnie finds himself cast as an extra in a swords and sandals epic.

In Ravjulata he is guilty of a culinary disaster involving canned tomato sauce and ravioli. The Boss, possibly the funniest story here, sees the unfortunate mechanic squandering a small fortune at a trendy new hair salon. Id-dramm satirises the local alternative theatre scene and Dwal Ġodda does the same with local councils and bossy kunsilliera.

Comparisons with that other more famous literary loser, Ugo Fantozzi, are inevitable. The two have a lot of things in common. However, whereas Fantozzi harboured petite bourgoise pretensions, ir-Ronnie is working class all the way. According to L-Intervista, the book's opening story, his favourite dish is a simple "għaġin biz-zalza". His pastimes include looking after his pet budgerigar and washing his ancient Ford Anglia. Like many Maltese people these days, he struggles to make ends meet, and something as trivial as a geyser breaking down is seen as a serious financial setback.

Prof. Friggieri's writing is first class. The style is lean and mean and not a single word is wasted in useless descriptions or bloated dialogues.

The humour is sharp. Maybe not as sharp as in the original collection, but it can still make a sourpuss like this reviewer laugh out loud at pleasantly regular intervals. The author has a gift for naming characters and places: Check out the opening paragraph of Dwal Ġodda to see what I mean. Also, street names are very often satirised: One street in Ronnie's village is called Triq it-Tiritombla. Could this be a sly dig at Maltese boards responsible for naming streets? One wonders...

Unfortunately, Aktar Stejjer tar-Ronnie does suffer from the occasional bout of sequel-itis. A couple of stories (Il-Guru, for example) are sketchy and underdeveloped, while others (Ġuda springs to mind) have a whiff of déjà-vu to them. As a fellow reviewer pointed out, Prof. Friggieri seems to have taken to writing English words according to their Maltese phonetic equivalent. Thus, a fuse becomes a fjus and snooker becomes snuker. A very sad state of affairs indeed, and something which doesn't augur well for the future of the Maltese language. At this point, one does feel a bit like King Canute trying to stem the tide.

All in all, Aktar Stejjer tar-Ronnie is recommended to fans of the original stories and to anyone who's looking for a solid collection of well-written short stories in Maltese. The welcome return of Steven Bonello's eye-catching cartoons might even make the Alices among you give this one a try. You won't be disappointed.

• Mr Stagno is a freelance writer and full-time university student.

• A review copy of this book was supplied by the author.

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