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Three horror stories

Whatever your other engagements, since you were a student you have been addicted to literature. What particularly interesting novels have you been reading recently?

There are three with interconnections. The first is The Kaminsky Cure, (London, Saqi, 2005). "Whatever we might like for Christmas, what we get is refugees." That single sentence may suffice to recall, for those who frequented the Philosophy Society a few years ago, the tone of voice of Christopher New. His wit was never biting; he never barked; only rumination upon his remarks revealed their aptness and depth.

Few of us had actually read any of his fictional works, although surely writing a blockbuster such as Shanghai had yielded insights for the lectures given at our University, published under the title Philosophy and Literature.

New, before retiring to Malta and setting up home half dug out of the rock in Manikata, had been head of the Department of Philosophy of Hong Kong University. He had acquired an acute understanding of Asian culture.

The Kaminsky Cure is, however, set in Austria. The author is equally familiar with the culture for other family reasons.

The creeping crab-like hold established by Nazism on ordinary people like you and me is told through the eyes of a boy, the son of a waffling pastor and a Jewish mother.

There are no pages with the sort of gruesome accounts of the torture and executions described in eyewitness fashion in Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones which has sold in France by the truck-load. On the contrary, in accordance with its subject matter, the narrative is slow moving, but replete with black humour and subtly evocative imagery.

"She enters with the air of a small brown mouse with glistening wide brown eyes, peering anxiously about her for the slightest hint of a cat. But there's no cat here - we're not allowed to have one - and Fraulein Hofer and Resi bid her "Gruess Gott" on Saturday mornings quite as if she was a normal person, not a vicious and degenerate Jew with the yellow badge of shame emblazoned on her breast."

While reading the novel, I exercised my soul by substituting 'refugee' for Jew, and Malta today for Austria then. This novel is a true work of art. The overriding sense of the human spirit that it conveys is not of abjectness, but of resilience. Despite all its horrors, at the end of history, as Julian of Norwich said: "All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well".

What is your second book?

I do not know whether it is significant or not that Nazism also figures prominently in it. The novel is somewhat rebarbatively called Alte Vestiga, and this is quite typical of its author, Anton Sammut, who has also done the clever gold-on-black cover design and is hardly recognisable in the soft-focused photo on the back cover. He certainly does nothing to ingratiate himself with prospective readers of this large scale first attempt at a philosophical novel.

Unlike New, Sammut is by no means a professional philosopher. He works at the shipyards. The sheer erudition he has amassed is in itself proof of his exceptional character as well as mind.

The story begins in 1890 and ends in 1990. I guess that it was not in fact named 'A Hundred Years' because the phrase had already been used by Garcia Marquez. In fact it is more reminiscent both in its philosophy of history and in its linguistic texture rather of Alfred Sant's La Bidu La Tmiem.

Sammut basically agrees with Sant that human nature does not change. Both are radically anti-Marxist in this regard and consequently I do not wholly sympathise with the world vision expressed by either.

However, in Sant's case, the belief in fundamental historic immutability is shown by telling a story set in the time of the Knights that could be set in our own days without any major change in its pattern. Sammut shows his nearly identical belief by having the same pattern of events repeated with each of the generations who succeed each other.

Sant seems to think that place is almost as unimportant as time as far as basic human behaviour goes.

Sammut, on the contrary, after choosing to locate the major part of his story in a very accurately described Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany, sets a group of his characters on travels across Europe with a not so co-incidental call at Malta.

Undoubtedly, this snapshot of Malta today, as it would appear to minds with the perceptive powers that had been moulded by the recounted 100-year history, was a prime motivating force of the narrative.

All the characters appear to be cut-out dimensions of a single historical couple: Adam and Eve.

And your third book?

It is Family Photos by Petra Bianchi. She is not only a former student of mine but we co-authored two books: on Pynchon and a dictionary of distinguished visitors to Malta from St Paul onwards.

This novel also spans a century. However, between the 1860s, when it begins, and the 1960s, when it ends, there is a yawning black hole.

The early part evokes the fascinating web of relationships spun mainly in Valletta between the Italian exiles who flocked here because of the Risorgimento, the other kind of exiles who were the English Colonial civil servants and servicemen and the Maltese divided by pro-Italian or pro-British sympathies.

The later part is set in Sliema and shows a great grandson of one of the Italian exiles seeking to re-establish memory connections with the lost knowledge and values of his ancestors.

Actually, the novel might have been sub-titled 'An Elegy for Sliema', the dismal architectural discomfiture of which is lamented by the characters seen searching for their moral roots.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Miriam Vincenti

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