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A new Moses

Paul P. Borg:
Il-Kmandament Numru 11: Ħobb Il-Ħolqien
Horizons, 2016.  531pp

This thick volume, a work of fiction,  is also an angry com-mentary on the steady ruining of Malta’s environment through the greed of developers and the ignorance about or sheer indifference to this of so many Maltese. It  is, I suspect, a final and devastating work on this subject by Paul P. Borg, well-known author and environmentalist.

Borg comes from old farming stock in the Mellieħa area, and his many childhood and youthful years spent with his grandparents on their farm in that area marked him out for life as a person in love with nature and a great admirer of farmers and farming.

As he gets older he begins to despair of the willingness and ability of Maltese governments, both Nationalist ones and the Labour ones he tends to support, to put an end to the steady destruction and spoiling of this country by short-sighted and sometimes ignorant development.

He is a rebellious kind of  Catholic and though he is an admirer of Pope Francis and has a good word to say about our Archbishop Charles Scicluna, his main character in this novel, the young man Mosè, is scathing about the Church’s history of what he sees as indifference to what is being done to nature in Malta.

He cannot forgive Malta’s monsignors for having sold to developers the property be-queathed to the Church sometimes by farmers in the past.

Mosè, like the great biblical Moses, also encounters God but this happens in Valletta at carnival, where he is in the shape of  the papier-maché King Carnival and laments that the Maltese people with their utterly indifferent and often callous attitude to the environment have reduced him to a god of clowns.

He gives Mosè the text of a commandment he seems to have forgotten to give Moses in Sinai: it is an eleventh commandment, Love all creation. He bids the young man to propagate the new commandment among his people and to punish those who are so cruelly breaking it.

Mosè now knows God cannot prevent men from doing evil but understands, to his horror, that he himself is expected to be God’s avenging arm. Late in the novel we learn that he is receiving medication for the bipolarity from which he suffers and so understand that the many supernormal and super-natural experiences he has throughout the novel may be the creations of his mind.

When, folloing the behest to avenge, he destroys the machinery that has been used to destroy the farm of Toni, neighbouring that of  Mosè’s father Ganni, in preparation for building development, he spends a nightmarish night in Valletta. Here, he nearly drowns himself in despair, sees a boatful of wouldbe migrants drown as they approach Malta, but also sees Don Quixote tilting vainly but bravely at the windmill, a reminder that he himself should not despair but steel himself to take significnt action.

Earlier that evening, in one of the least convincing episodes in the novel, he buys a seat to watch, of all things, at Teatru Manoel a play by Anton Chekhov, a great dramatist often avoided by, and unknown even by name to, people with Mosè’s scanty education.

Known  in English trans-lations as The Anniversary or A Jubilee this little comedy shows how a muddle-headed but obstinate old woman pesters a banker, who is depicted satirically, to give her the money unjustly deducted from her husband’s salary by his state employer until he surrenders and gives her what she wants to get rid of her.

For Mosè the old woman is not a comic character but a heroine who uses the bank as a representative of all the institutions denying ordinary people their rights. He inter-rupts the performance to harangue the annoyed audience about what he thinks.

The author also provides an introduction and an excellent long final essay to be read so the reader will understand the depth of Borg’s preoccupations and his determination to write about them

He now begins to think of imitating her by choosing a person whom he can punish as a representative of all the environmental villains. Judith and David in the Bible, fierce killers of Holofernes and Goliath respectively, are figures he greatly admires.

In his nocturnal wandering through Valletta’s streets he meets, most astoundingly the figure of the crucified Christ, bleeding and crowned with thorns, who comes down to speak to him from one of the street niches, and impresses him by saying how the violence done on Him at the crucifixion gave birth to infinite love.

This meeting strengthens his mental confusion about aveng-ing environmental villainy when one of the 10 Commandments forbids him to kill. This mental conflict occurs too often in the novel, becoming tedious.

What tips the scale in favour of revenge is the arrival of a crowd of  spirits of dead Maltese farmers who curse him for cowardice when he is hesitating and prod him on to violence. Urged on by them he goes to one of the huge building developments and begins to tear them down single-handed. The readers will accept this only by seeing the whole tale as a huge fable: the structures are so large and strongly built, and nobody, least of all the police, is there to stop the huge mayhem.

As if this were not enough, Mosè finds himself visiting a medical clinic where he sees abortions being performed and dead foetuses being butchered and flushed away. He is utterly shocked and sees them as another type of terrible ant-human act performed in breach of the new 11th Commandment. The novel lingers more than a little over this episode and made me sure that like Mosè the author too regards these operations on unborn foetuses as unbearably cruel.

With the dead farmer il-Musrun and the other angry spirits chiding him and egging him on to perform the final act of vengeance, an act of blood, he now needs very little persuasion.

For him the representative of all the villains badly in breach of the 11th Commandment, including the medical killers of unborn foetuses, is the developer who has destroyed Toni’s farm, leading him to take his own life, and who is clearly planning to take over and destroy the farm of Ġanni, Mosè’s own father.

The final scene is an encounter early in the morning as the doomed developer is hunting at Għajn Ħadid near Ġanni’s farm.

Mosè is an unusual character who is physically different when he is in an avenging mood: his green eyes get even greener, his jaw juts out and his figure looks threatening. Is this symptomatic of his bipolarityity or are these marks he acquires when God uses him as His avenger? Readers are warned that Mose’s speech, and also that of the human and phantom farming people, is phonetically that of the farmers in the Mellieha area and is liberally sprinkled with coarse words.

For the verb corresponding to the English “spoil” or “ruin” for instance Mosè never says “rvina” but “n—k”, a verb in common use, it seems, in certain country areas and also, apparently, quite widely in Gozo, but rarely in sophisticated city parlance. Borg is a specialist in the usage of country speech in his novels, as he first showed in his novel Ċikku Fenech.

Those readers who attempt to go through this large work may be put off by the repetitousness of, for instance, the descriptions of Mosè’s spiritual and intellectual dilemmas. Readers will probably accept the presence throughout the novel of the supernatural or an apparent supernatural, and if  they are not put off by Mosè’s great reluctance to accept that some kinds of development are necessary if done wisely and sensitively.

Though others are fearfully destructive of an environment  we need to retain, they might conclude that to prevent environmentalist individuals from taking law into their hands, it requires a state that is not in the developers’ pockets, a state dedicated to a balance in the environment.

The book is illustrated with a number of  line images by Frank Schembri, that in their often effective roughness comple-ment the text quite well. The author also provides an introduction and an excellent long final essay of reflections that needs to be read so the reader will understand the depth of Borg’s preoccupations and his determination to write about them.

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