No simple beach read

Alex Vella Gera: Trojan. Klabb Kotba Maltin. 2015. 182 pp.

Alex Vella Gera has a knack for throwing the reader straight into an introspective mood from the first sentence and, with his newest work Trojan, things are no different.

After Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi – the author’s ode to a post-Mintoff, ideologically-schizophrenic Malta – Vella Gera is back with another psychological character study.

But that is where similarities end, as Trojan’s protagonist, the rather unsympathetic Ġanni Muscat, could hardly be more different than Noel, the troubled star of Sriep.

Considering that he is the spawn of the same mind that penned controversial short story Li Tkisser Sewwi back in 2009 – a story that almost landed its author in jail and that proved a catalyst in the recent repealing of the infamous blasphemy laws – Ġanni might, at first glance, appear to be a bit of a strange creation, given his predilection for religious totalitarianism.

But first things first. This new novel is less hefty in length than its predecessor, but somehow it leaves a deeper aftertaste.

The storyline follows specific incidents in Ġanni’s life, events that marked him and shaped him into the rigid, non-compromising man that the author’s descriptions make him out to be.

Vella Gera gives his protagonist an almost Fantozzian aura of misfortune

Ġanni is many things. He is a one hit wonder writer, still riding on the legacy of his only novel, L-Għanja tas-Sirena, but mysteriously refusing to publish any of his other works.

He is a devoted husband and father, his life centering around his wife Inez and son Miguel, his biggest disappointment being the latter’s preference for drugs (and, later, women) over religion.

And he is fanatically religious, his overzealous fervour and fire-and-brimstone approach almost rendering him a caricature of your typical fundamentalist.

The majority of the storyline centres around Ġanni’s strong beliefs and the way his unwavering principles affect those who are closest to him.

From Ineż, who feels herself caged by this man she married; to his son, so far removed in character from Ġanni; and his erstwhile best friend Philip, whose refusal to adhere to the religious tenets Ġanni holds so dear prompts the latter to drop him.

So far, so straightforward. Or is it? Because the story does include the signature Vella Gera dash of intrigue, so that even as the reader is being shown – in third party close point of view, which renders everything that much more intimate – just how pious Ġanni is, one can’t help the feeling that there’s a hidden story running in the background to the one we are being presented with.

In many ways, the manner in which the main character’s personality develops brings to mind a Leli ta’ Ħaż-Żgħir in reverse.

Ġuże Ellul Mercer’s anti-hero finds enlightenment – or, moral deterioriation, depending on your point of view – towards the end of the narrative.

Vella Gera’s does the opposite, his religious obsession growing stronger as the years go by. Rather than weakening his beliefs, modern life and everything it brings with it (the description of a young woman who sports a tramp stamp is particularly funny, as is his laying into an unsuspecting priest about how lax the church has become) only serves to further convince Ġanni that his is the only righteous path. And he keeps to it till the end.

Vella Gera gives his protagonist an almost Fantozzian aura of misfortune. It is as though everything Ġanni does is touched by bad luck – whether it’s accidentally running over a child’s cat, or inadvertently causing a girl with a disability to fall over and injure herself.

This bad luck and unhappiness practically reaches Steinbeck levels when it comes to his family affairs and relationships.

I will confess that I found it very difficult to emphatise with Ġanni, him being what the majority of readers will refer to as an ‘ultra-conservative’.

My reaction persisted, even taking into account Vella Gera’s statement that Ġanni is a nod towards the fact that what we used to call the ‘conservatives’ have nowadays become the rebels and are no longer representative of the majority mindset in Malta.

Maybe this is because, for someone of my generation, the impact that such ‘rebels’ had on Maltese culture until not too long ago is still too fresh and too close for comfort to the reality that I grew up in.

Younger readers, not having grown up in a society dominated by religious zeal, are unlikely to suffer the same instinctual recoil I did.

Annoying lead character or not – and despite the heaviness of the subject matter – the narrative keeps the reader’s interest. The setting is contemporary, with references to Isis and Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le, aplenty – but the mood is distinctly retrospective.

The header for each chapter is presented in archaic Maltese, before we are plunged back into a world of ‘ajsbergs’ and ‘faders’.

And, as with his other books, it is not only the main character that Vella Gera enjoys dissecting.

The local crowd that likes to think of itself as literary comes in for a measure of sardonic treatment, albeit in passing, as we read about the ‘poet with the goaty’ and the ‘writer who satirises the klassi tal-pepe (snobs)’.

Trojan – and the story behind the title is an intriguingly clever one that I will leave you to discover within the narrative itself – is no beach read.

But then again, no Vella Gera ever is, and let’s be thankful for that.

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