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Ruled by a woman’s rejection

Writer Immanuel Mifsud discusses his latest novel, Jutta Heim, with David Schembri.

A production still from the film adaptation of the author’s short story, Laqgħa ma Mara Morbi.

A production still from the film adaptation of the author’s short story, Laqgħa ma Mara Morbi.

Jutta Heim, the namesake of Immanuel Mifsud’s latest book, is a waitress working in Alexanderplatz, East Berlin, with whom Erik Xerri, a famous Maltese actor, has a one-night stand on March 28, 1980.

Despite his being a globetrotting philanderer, Jutta was the one that got away for Xerri, who – in spite, or perhaps because, of her ignoring him – keeps sending her letters.

After over 30 years, he decides to visit Berlin in the hope of finding her again.

“This book is based around this peculiarity. This man was a huge womaniser and he continually notices that everything had gone the way he wanted it to, particularly when it came to his incredibly successful love life,” Mifsud says of his book.

“All this notwithstanding, he meets this woman for a few hours and obsesses over her, simply because he wrote to her over and over again and she never replied. If she had replied, he might have lost interest, as he did in other women.”

Immanuel Mifsud’s latest novel, Jutta Heim. The cover design is by Pawlu Mizzi.Immanuel Mifsud’s latest novel, Jutta Heim. The cover design is by Pawlu Mizzi.

What does Mifsud think of Jutta Heim’s protagonist?

“He’s disgusting, he’s macho… I don’t think I hate him, but he’s not the kind of person I want to be. He used the people around him. He abandoned his daughter and wife,” he said.

It goes back to Xerri’s childhood – a beautiful child who always got what he wanted. “Then he became an actor and you know how actors love attention and the spotlight,” the former theatre director says.

“He is narcissistic and his relationships were all built on what he wanted.”

The death of Liża, a former lover, as well as his own illness, bring about change in him, and, swallowing his pride, he travels up to Berlin to find Jutta, even searching within the Stasi archives with the suspicion that she was in fact a spy.

He doesn’t manage to find her and that, Mifsud says, was the first failure of his life.

So hubristic is Xerri’s character, that the novel is bookended by excerpts from Oedipus Rex.

At one point, Mifsud also considered calling the book Rex, but decided against it for various reasons, not least the canine references.

The book, clocking in at around 150 pages, is what could be marketed as a novella.

Mifsud employed a cinema-inspired technique with intercutting scenes. He even pays tribute to the scene from David Lean’s Dr Zhivago in which the protagonist sees Lara from his tram but can’t communicate with her by presenting a faithful analogue in a taxi going through Alexanderplatz.

“Cinema has always been a source of inspiration, perhaps even more than books. I have always been inspired by film directors, chief among which is [Polish director] Kieslowski.

“This book has a lot of this spirit... an idea of mystery, why this indefinite phenomenon is happening,” Mifsud says.

“I’m not telling a new story. The serial one-night stand is not new, the idea of reminiscence is not new, but I think the way I’ve told the story should be the thing that hopefully will strike readers most.”

The book is signposted with historical events – both local and foreign. There’s the fall of the Berlin wall, but there’s also the Interdett, Freedom Day, the 1987 election and last year’s election.

Erik, the son of a staunch Labourite, was influenced by the Interdett, a period of our history which Mifsud believes has been largely ignored by writers, citing Clare Azzopardi’s play L-Interdett Taħt is-Sodda as a notable exception.

“I’ve recently noticed that our historical milestones, apart from those relating to the Knights, which were discussed by writers in the first half of the 20th century for their own reasons, have been ignored,” Mifsud says.

Cinema has always been a source of inspiration, perhaps even more than books

“For some reason or other – and I’m not saying I’m going to be the one to change it, I don’t even know if I’m interested – there seems to be this inertia away from the historical novel, whereas in the past the historical novel was the ‘in’ thing.

“When you consider how much Malta suffered during World War II, it is ironic that the majority of books on Malta during the Second World War – like The Kappillan of Malta – have been written by foreigners.”

He goes on to contrast the way in which Poland and Malta commemorate the suffering of World War II.

“The Polish would find it very hard to believe that we were bombed by the Italians and the Germans, but that plenty of Maltese people would support Italy when they played against Malta,” the writer says.

“In a way, it is positive, but it’s very strange that in a country a whole generation has erased the memory of the war.

“There is a huge disinterest. It’s one of the strange things about this country, in my view. So it’s not such a surprise that there are no historical novels if there is such a widespread disregard towards history.”

Among the historical signposts in the book, the last elections play a major part. Erik Xerri, now retired but keen for attention, is invited to appear on one of the Labour Party’s billboards and gives a memorable speech in one of the taħt it-tinda events.

“I always knew Erik was going to die at the end, but I didn’t know exactly how. The last elections – and personalities involved within it – served as an inspiration for the book’s ending.”

In Jutta Heim, the 2013 election campaign is the final milestone in Erik Xerri’s story. However, Mifsud believes that in retrospect, the events of last year would be a milestone in Maltese history for better or for worse.

“Even if nothing were to happen, last year’s election was still historical,” Mifsud says.

“You have a whole generation of Maltese people who do not really know another party in government, much like I had only experienced a Labour government until 1987.

“We spoke for a long time of before and after 1987. I think eventually we will speak of 2013 in the same way.”

Jutta Heim by Immanuel Mifsud is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin.

• The author will be giving a presentation about the book and a reading at the upcoming National Book Festival that takes place between November 12 and 16 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta.

Mifsud will also be interviewed by Kurt Borg. A short film based on the author’s story Laqgħa ma’ Mara Morbi will then be screened during the festival on Saturday at 8.30pm at the Sir Temi Zammit Hall.

For more information look up the National Book Festival event page on Facebook.

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