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First Maltese Western in literature

SKS Publishers have published more of Alfred Sant’s short stories and divertissements. Mario Azzopardi reviews the collection.

Since the mid-20th century only a handful of Maltese writers have systematically explored a diverse range of themes, genres and stylistic expressions. Besides his political commitments (as Labour Party leader, Prime Minister and Member of the European Parliament), Alfred Sant has published novels, plays, essays (notably on the political process in Europe and contemporary socialism), short stories and, what he has lately began referring to as divertissements.

Sant aims for a selective readership even when his narrative prose is heavily laced with a local flavour, both in plot development and use of language. In fact, his short scenes are rooted in the atmosphere of the village band club’s bar replete with card playing and pique about the annual feast.

Sant seeks to record the atmosphere with an ethnographer’s eye for detail, at one point even referencing Jeremy Boissevain and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Although SKS also caters for a popular readership that doesn’t set much store by demanding literary fare, it has established itself in the field of quality books with, for example, the publication of a rhymed version of Don Quixote in Maltese.

Sant also instils a desire for fantasy. What’s more, as an author with a science background, he is intrigued by themes that aren’t easily accessible to the average reader. A rarity in Maltese literature, this short story takes the form of an intergalactic odyssey.

Sant’s unconventional wanderings are evident in his familiarity with the often used trope of religious women’s desire and eroticism. In Soru (The Nun), a young woman accompanies her sick mother to London where she will undergo medical treatment. Somehow the young woman ends up in the bed of a nun who has never experienced erotic pleasure.

The Absurd is always threatening to take over Sant’s imagination. In fact, the author has experimented with the genre since his first work Min hu Evelyn Costa?  (1966).

Setting new parameters for the short story in Maltese for the 21st century

In one of the short stories in this collection, a woman enters her apartment where she discovers a man who has committed suicide. She proceeds to talk to him at length. The coup de grâce arrives when the dead man and the woman switch roles.

As if to confirm his literary versatility and inventiveness, Sant has also included Western, a short story that is possibly the first of its kind in Maltese literature.

Way back, Juann Mamo wrote a parody about Maltese migrants (Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka ), but in Western Sant is more interested in tragedy and revenge, themes that very often take centre stage in Wild West films, where cowboys terrorise whole villages. In this world, peace-loving inhabitants, averse to intimidation, seek the protection of federal soldiers when confronted with bullying thugs who are experts at bull and horse taming, gunslinging and downing whisky.

In this short story Sant seems to be oscillating between the realism of the first half of the 20th century and a linear technique, reminiscent of graphic filmography.

Western’s narrative trajectory follows the path of a Maltese migrant who leaves his village where he was a shepherd and milk seller to become a sailor. Just like many Maltese before and after, he settles in the US, first in New York, then California and finally in Godsum Creek.

As noted earlier this story echoes Mamo, with the major difference that Sant’s intentions are far removed from parody or satire. The main character, known only by his moniker il-Malti (the Maltese guy) realises that he has to draw on all the knowledge he had acquired in his village back in Malta.

A loner, a symptom of his psychosocial isolation in a vast and hostile country, he finds employment as a labourer to a widow whose husband had been killed in the war with Mexico between 1846 and 1848. For a time everything is plain sailing and the Maltese labourer and his American employer become lovers.

However, the woman’s husband (who, in reality had not been killed) turns up unexpectedly. He turns the Maltese man out and together with a gang of cowboys humiliates him in front of his wife and the people of Godsum Creek. The Maltese man decides to take revenge and razes the American’s farmhouse to the ground in a blaze that also decimates the flocks of sheep the thug had stolen from his wife.

Maltese individuality or quirkiness recurs in other short stories dealing with the suffocating limitation of Mediterranean social milieu. Sant stretches his narrative strategies to include dialogue techniques employed in playwriting. In this way he sidesteps a glib and facile writing style.

Sant’s strange world does not recoil from the macabre. In Rigor Mortis the author dredges up a ritual of horror when the protagonist, a living dead, is overrun in his coffin by humongous slimy slugs intent on kissing him.

With this latest collection of short stories Sant is not only reaffirming himself as a writer with multiple viewpoints but is also setting new parameters for the short story in Maltese for the 21st century.

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