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Truth transformed by fiction

Awguri Giovanni Bonello!
Edited by Theresa Vella
Merlin, 2016  
183pp.

This handsomely printed and illustrated hardback in an elegant slipcase with the book’s title cut beautifully into the case’s cover and with elegant illustrations by Marisa Attard, has been published on the occasion of Giovanni Bonello’s 80th birthday.

In her foreword, Theresa Vella writes that the 10 short stories in the book are inpired by some of the intriguing characters Bonello has written about in his numerous books and articles over the past decades. Readers of this book will soon realise that the authors have been left free to interpret and often depart far from the historical facts known about Bonello’s personages. As Vella says: “Fictional constructions of the past are licensed to cut across the scientific boundaries of historical truths.”

The authors commissioned to write the stories in either English or Maltese include very successful novelists/short story writers, other published authors less known to me but certainly much respected and writers successful  in other genres, such as  Maria Grech Ganado and Kristina Chetcuti.

All of them have written entertainingly, some much more successfully than others. A few were handicapped by having been assigned personages who probably defy most authors’ imaginative efforts.

Grech Ganado, for instance, was assigned the 16th-century Italian author Laura Battiferri who caught Bonello’s attention because of her four poems about Malta’s 1565 Great Siege, and little else. Grech Ganado writes, subtly as usual, about the oil portrait of her by the great painter Bronzino, which certainly does not do much for her looks and of her unexciting and barren relations with men.

Nothing about her Great Siege poems, presumably because there is nothing very interesting about them. Certainly, Battiferri was no Vittoria Colonna, her great female poet contemporary. This is more of a study than a true story.

Walid Nabhan was assigned Gaetano Mannarino, one of the leaders of the disastrous so-called “revolt of the priests” in 1775. Once regarded as a hero who was imprisoned between 1775 and 1798, he was proved by Bonello to have been no hero but an abject betrayer of his fellow-conspirators in order to escape execution. Nabhan just ignores Mannarino in his story Ir-Rewwixta tal-Ħebża, making his protagonist a baker whom he calls Ġanni l-Fieres, leader of the bakers from Qormi who were rising in protest against the high prices for corn and other matters related to baking recently introduced by the Order. Nabhan says he does not know Ganni’s fate when the insurrection failed, a brave man whose end is not even recorded.

Most of the other writers made sure they wrote stories that hold the reader’s attention. My favourite is Clare Azzopardi’s piece on the philanthropist Caterina Scappi to which she has cleverly given the shape of a dramatic dialogue, a monologue and a series of indignant remonstrances with the notary who has drawn up the will of the lately deceased Scappi, a wealthy woman from Siena who in the 17th century dedicated her life to philanthropic activities and principally the setting up of a hospital for women. All the characters are women.

The monologue of a woman, presumbly a diseased prostitute in Scappi’s hospital, has vulgar outbursts against Malta’s knightly rulers who just used women and then discarded them and praise for the generous and genial Caterina. The tone is serious and the woman’s feeble repetition of her fear that Caterina has now died makes it the only one of the three sections voicing affection for the dead philanthropist.

On the other hand, the opening section with its dialogue between four women of a much better class voices not a hint of affection or admiration for Caterina and draws attention again and again to their envy of anyone who may have benefited from Caterina’s last will.

The last section is made of the angry outpourings of a woman of the same social rank  who can hardly  believe that Caterina, of whom she was long  a toady, has left her a miserable legacy of a single faldetta whereas a number of others have done much better out of the will. Azzopardi is very skilful at depicting utter selfishness and envy. Her piece could make a hilarious satirical stage comedy.

Alfred Sant’s Testment is a dark telling of the last days of an eminent Maltese priest and scholar whose encyclopaedic dictionary of the Church went into several editions, posthumous editions by his brother Carlo.  As Domenico lies dying in Viterbo in 1672, he urges his notary not only to write his will but also to compile a catalogue of his library, his important tool.

His brother is with him and does his best to thwart what Domenico was going to write about Carlo’s dubious parentage. Sant ably evokes the atmosphere of a house in which a death is imminent, the anxiety of the dying Domenico and the cunning and ruthlessness of Carlo. It is a tale that fits well into Bonello’s historical accounts of hanky-panky in the past.

Caterina Vitale, of whom a large marble tablet in Valletta’s Carmelite church sings the praises, like Scappi was a do-gooder but unlike the latter her personal life was far from unblemished. Bonello described her as a nympho-maniac and she was reputed to sleep with Knights of the Order to further her business interests in running the Order’s pharmacy and dealing in property.

Worse still, she was reputed to torture her slaves, though ironically she set up a foundation to redeem Christian slaves imprisoned abroad.

Teodor Reljic goes to town in his story about her, culminating in a scene of torture and mass killing figuring a Dracula kind of figure. The story closes with the explosion that in 1593 mysteriously destroyed Caterina’s house in Valletta… an explosion, we learn, caused revengefully by the strange narrator of the story.

Immanuel Mifsud’s  Ekaterina la Grecque, a historical figure, bore, as the records reveal, no less a man than Jean de Valette an illegitimate son whom the great man re-cognised as his and made sure he was regularly baptised.

Ekaterina was a beautiful girl from Rhodes with a Greek mother and a Knight of the Order as father. The simple and lucid narration by Ekaterina herself starts with her being told when she was a small girl who her father was and goes on to when, on reaching womanhood, she was taken from Rhodes to Malta and as a beauty with some aristocratic blood in her, became de Valette’s concubine until she became pregnant and bore his son.

Mifsud cunningly never describes any encounter between the girl and de Valette, letting us see Ekaterina as someone whose destiny was determined solely by others. He eschews the gothic elements used say by Reljic, giving us a tale without comments that makes us see the aristocratic knights as being very shocking indeed.

In her tale inspired by the figure of Gian Francesco Buonamico, 17th-century physician and author of the first treatise on chocolate ever published, Kristina Chetcuti has written a romantic story with a tragic ending about Buonamico’s relationship with an invented figure, Filippa, a beautiful Florentine girl who for some time shared his travels in Europe and his scientific interests, introducing him to the new fashion of drinking chocolate that became an obsession with Buonamico.

After a separation of 20 years, Filippa before dying sends Buonamico some choice cocoa beans, suggesting toxic sub-stances to go with them and a long love letter. Buonamico, aged 41, thus joins her in death. Teenage readers will love this story.

John A. Bonello had the task of associating the French medieval philosopher Nicolas Bonett, for some years bishop of Malta, and Mattew Falzon, a wealthy Maltese Lutheran persecuted by the Inquisition in Malta for his beliefs who escaped being burnt at the stake by fleeing Malta.

Falzon has long been known in our folklore as “The wizard Falzon” and Bonello tells us how he escaped from the Inquisition’s clutches by coming across Nicolas Bonett’s philosophical works and then, wonder of wonders, en-countering his spirit andlearning that a man can go on existing even after a physical death.  From him Falzon learns how to disappear from his prison cell.

It is a tale that fits in with the common practice of a good many authors to mingle the real with the surreal. Mark Vella has written what I might call a neo-baroque tale about the much-   decorated 19th-century Maltese adventurer and pro-minent art collector Luigi Borg de Balzan, focused on the great auction of his huge art collection he held in 1894 to subsidise projects like the setting up of a museum of psychology.

The story is told by a failed Italian painter, an enemy of Borg’s, who upsets the auction pro-ceedings by flourishing at him in front of all a large phallic object found by the painter in Borg’s secret collection. Presumably, Vella wishes us to see the shock created by this event as leading to Borg’s financial destruction and death within two years.

Sebastian Zammet (or Zamet), having a Maltese father, but born in Italy, was by original profession a cordwainer (the old term for a shoemaker) but became in various ways well-known in the Paris of the last decades of the 16th century.  Famous for the beautiful leather shoes he made, he built a reputation for his business deals and the financial services he provided, but he also became well-known as a high-class pimp for the nobility and not least for Henri IV, whose mistress Gabrielle died in Zammet’s large Parisian house, much mourned by the king.

Emma Mattei puts his story in Zammet’s own mouth, making him appear as a much more pleasant man than he must have been.

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