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Josef Gambin’s quest

S. Debono
It-Tfittxija Għall-Ġenwin Ta’ Josef Gambin
Horizons, 2016, 210 pages

The written word often reveals humanity’s age-old curious preoccupation with its place in the world. The fear that life may, after all, be meaningless drives people to embark on personal quests for meaning.

They may seek this in friends, family, sport, work, politics, pet causes and even religion. However, the journey is often torturous and fraught with unpredictable developments. At one point, one may even realise that they were searching for meaning in the wrong place.

S. Debono’s debut novel, It-Tfittxija għall-Ġenwin ta’ Josef Gambin, introduces us to the personal journey of Josef Gambin whose adolescence and youth are beset by this search for meaning, identity and authenticity.

The novel opens with a scene familiar to many Maltese children. It is just before Christmas and Josef is in the yard of the local branch of the Society for Christian Doctrine (known as MUSEUM). The reader is immediately introduced to some charismatic individuals who have the young Josef in their thrall.

The Superior has an old-school way of maintaining discipline. At the same time, he displays an inherent charisma – he is energetic, persistent and a brilliant communicator who effectively uses stories to capture the imagination of his young and impressionable audience. The Prefect is equally charismatic. He represents a new generation with fresh ideas, but he also uses similar memorable turns of phrase to captivate his audience.

After receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, Josef is encouraged to keep attending his local MUSEUM. This decision affects every aspect of Josef’s life for the coming years.

Two months short of his twelfth birthday, Josef begins to help in the teaching of classes. At the age of thirteen, he starts teaching catechism classes on a full-time basis. Concurrently, he takes the decision to commit himself to become a life-long member of the MUSEUM.

His schedule is completely taken over by his new commitment. He wakes up at 5.00am to attend the 6.00am Mass. Once he returns home from school, he begins to prepare for his teaching duties. By 5.40pm he heads to the premises of the local MUSEUM branch. He finishes his duties at 9.00pm. He then returns home, eats and finishes his homework. His day would end with the recitation of the Rosary at 10.45pm.

The weekends would offer no respite from this gruelling schedule. There were always activities to organise, lessons to prepare, and formation meetings to attend. The involvement with the organisation gradually begins to alter Josef’s personality.

Firstly, Josef begins to express sentiments which can be deemed as being self-righteous. These feelings don’t seem to come from a perspective of one who feels morally superior, but rather from the inexplicable guilt which plagues the adolescent.

Secondly, Josef begins to distance himself from his friends. After an indiscretion on the school playground, his friends begin to keep their distance. His family also takes second place; he only misses one MUSEUM Sunday outing to join his family after his father orders him to do so.

Indeed, the needs and the values of the organisation take precedence over everything else. In 2003, at the age of 18, Josef became a lifelong member. His dependence on the organisation intensifies; it provides stability and structure and gives him meaning and direction in life.

However, doubts begin to set in. Once Josef enrols at University, he begins to discover new perspectives, worldviews and ideas. Josef begins to be more self-aware of his appearance and his mannerisms; he yearns for new experiences, and he realises that his quest for meaning is far from over. Above all, he realises that MUSEUM takes up a lot of his time and energy and yet it leaves him bereft of any real intense emotions.

The biggest decision Josef will have to make is whether he intends to remain within the organisation or leave the MUSEUM and turn his back on what, up to that point, had been much of his life.

Debono weaves an engaging narrative which manages to be humorous, poignant, and endearing. Unlike novels of this genre, the author does not place blame on individuals or the organisation – he merely seeks to explain the tough decisions which some individuals had to take during their journey in the quest for meaning.

Throughout the novel there is a fascinating juxtaposition between two underlying themes best exemplified by two famous literary phrases; Shakespeare’s famous dictum “to thine own self be true” and Jesus’ advice that “the truth shall set you free.”

The former is taken to be understood both in its original Elizabethan context where Polonius urges his son Laertes to seek his well-being before anything else and in the modern interpretation where individuals are urged to remain true to their selves.

The latter is best exemplified through the main character’s quest for an objective search for meaning and truth. The underlying lesson that one draws from the book is that, in essence, this quest should not be detrimental to self-interest and personal well-being.

The novel also introduces us to the problem which several organisations face. Organisations are organic structures which often need to renew themselves. Failure to do so will result in rigid structures which can have the unintended consequence of dehumanising its members.

Debono’s narrative indirectly raises questions which should challenge society; do we take into account that young adults are also on a quest for meaning? At what age should religious organisations seek to recruit vocations? How can we help individuals make a free and informed decision rather than a conditioned one?

Engaging with similar questions is vital if one seeks to have an informed debate on such issues.

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