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Inheritance of icons

Yesterday the funeral of Frans Sammut took place in Żebbuġ. I know he was a good friend of yours. How do you describe the man?

Although I was acquainted with him before, I only came to know him intimately when he became engaged to marry Kate Cachia, whose family I greatly admired and are still close to my heart.

He has now become one of that select group in the midst of whom, as I have confessed to you before, I look forward to finding my place in Heaven, ranging from Charles Chaplin to Grock, because he was like Hamlet’s Yorick, “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”.

The last time that I collaborated with him, however, a short while ago, was when this master of prose wrote his only attempt at poetry that I know of. It was the text of an oratorio on Our Lady of Sorrows which he was asked to write by the community of St Paul’s Bay to which he was attached with a strong emotional bond, although not of the same kind as that with his native Haż-Żebbuġ.

He referred his verses to me professedly to check the orthodoxy of his somewhat unusual treatment, perhaps inspired by the style of our Għana tal-fatt, but also clearly because he felt that I would not miss the deep sincerity with which he expressed participation in this epitome of Compassion, despite his habitual jestful scepticism about metaphysical matter.

At the time that I first encountered him with Kate, he was collaborating with Mario Azzopardi to set up the cultural pages of the newspaper Il-Mument. A keynote feature of it was an interview with me.

But already at that time he told me he did not really feel at home in the context of the Nationalist Party, because he said that he did not sense in that environment the same warmth towards the Maltese language that he found on the other side of the political divide, and that was what supremely mattered to him.

I quoted such examples as my uncle Erin and Ninu Cremona, who were both Nationalists and passionate lovers of the Maltese language.

But Sammut was always an extreme rationaliser, in the sense that he would produce most ingeniously contrived reasons to explain choices dictated by heart rather than mind.

What I am certain of is that, as Wittgenstein said that you could compile a philosophy book made up entirely of jokes, so too the best biography of Sammut would articulate his life-story following the pattern of the jokes he made at all the key moments of his passage on earth.

On his death-bed, he told me a couple of classic Jewish jokes with famous last words supposedly uttered by moribund Rabbis.

He explained that he should have been on that very day in Jerusalem where he had been invited by a Jewish friend, but he had had to cancel his rendez-vous because he was now on his way to the Heavenly Jerusalem.

I realised then that sometimes tears and laughter are interchangeable.

What contribution did Sammut make to Maltese literature?

His own favourite work was undoubtedly Il-Ħolma Maltija. He spent years crafting it with the patience and precision of a Cistercian manuscript illuminator.

His ambition was to depict a historical figure, Mikiel Anton Vassalli, whose features have been lost to the extent that there is no factual basis for the physiognomy given him by the sculptors who made monuments in his honour.

In the novel he would be depicted with the fullness of realistic detail of an ordinary, flesh and blood human being. The novelist-biographer scrupulously adheres to all the particular facts ascertained by researchers, but he has to invent out of his own imagination matters such as the doodles he would have made while nervously awaiting some judgment by potentates.

Out of these dream images, there emerged the personality traits cherished by the author empathising with the hero. In this way, Vassalli is endowed with the dimensions of a mythical but not superhuman being, belonging to the age of the Enlightenment but transcending contingent time, floating outside cultural conditioning into a fabulous universality of meaning.

The genius of Sammut was in his ability as of a Voltairian jester to transform a historical character into a sort of carnivalesque vector of an ironically larger than life mask. The reader is made to enjoy the obverse side of personalities usually regarded with unmitigated solemnity. One smiles like an accomplice in their doubts, slippings and tergiversations. The stylistic shift from historical narrative to fictional is perhaps the biggest challenge to be faced by any kind of translator.

In fact, Sammut did try his hand at ordinary historical narrative. His book Bonaparte in Malta covers the same period as Il-Ħolma Maltija. In the title of this book, there is his usual sub-flavour of irony.

Although he was a fan of Bonaparte with the sort of enthusiasm that my contemporaries had for the Beatles, it flickered into nothing when the Corsican crowned himself Emperor Napoleon. The strongly egalitarian Maltese novelist did not appreciate that kind of joke played upon the French Revolutionaries.

Do his pictures of contemporary Malta compare in quality to his evocations of the age of the Enlightenment?

My hunch is that he will continue to be mostly remembered in Malta because of the iconic character he created in Il-Gaġġa.

The novel shows that it is not the traditional ethos of the Maltese village that produces claustrophobia in the young but a psychological structure that was relatively independent of where one lived.

Very negative, on the contrary, is his image of Paceville. At its deepest roots, all his writing promotes the traditional Maltese identity, as emerges most pungently in his polemical book against The Da Vinci Code.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Miriam Vincenti.

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