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Snapshots of reality

Prof. Joe Friggieri signing a copy of his latest book.Prof. Joe Friggieri signing a copy of his latest book.

Nismagħhom Jgħidu
Joe Friggieri
Kite Group, Malta,
2016,
262 pp.

In addition to a notable academic career as professor of philosophy, Joe Friggieri has been most prolific as an author. He has written the first popular history of philosophy in Maltese, poems, plays, scripts, librettos for opera (including the first opera in Maltese), song lyrics, and religious hymns, in addition to directing several plays which have left a definite mark on Maltese theatre. He has also presented and taken part on cultural programmes on the media. He has also won the National Literary Prize several times.

His short stories, including the two charming collections of Stejjer tar-Ronnie, published in 1992 and 2010 respectively, achieved general popularity, not least when they were read on the radio. Extremely readable, they have that thread of good-natured humour which has proved so popu­lar in Maltese literature in the popular short stories of Temi Zammit and George Zammit, to name just two authors.

The two collections of Ħrejjef għal Żmienna were even more exciting and of greater literary importance; in them Friggieri experimented successfully with magic realism, creating in the process several memorable short stories. Translated into English, French and German, the English version were very positively reviewed in the hallowed Times Literary Supplement.

The short story is a particular literary genre, the most recent one, one that needs particular skills. It is not a novel or a novella cut short. The author does not have the luxury of being able to build character and place over hundreds of pages. Each word must pay its dues, each description must contribute something towards the end result, each conversation must move the story inexorably forward. Some short stories get their ‘bite’ out of surprise endings, others by managing to impress the characters and the situations on the mind.

The end result is nearly always a most skilfully crafted story

Friggieri’s masterly handling of the Maltese language and dialogue are aspects he honed in penning his plays. The end result is nearly always a most skilfully crafted story, based on sharp observations of the human charac­ter, which never loses its hold on the reader’s attention.

Friggieri is equally at home when using the omniscient narrator’s technique as when he relates the story from the first person point of view, using a range of personae of both sexes and various ages to describe the events.

Of the 20 short stories in this anthology, most were written during last summer, although a few had been penned before. L-Għerusija, for example, had won first prize in 1991 in a competition for short stories organised by the Librarians’ Association, as did Is-Siġra the following year. Ir-Raġel li Ħabbha was presented in a literary competition in 2005. The other 17 are completely new.

The opening story, Is-Siġra, testifies to the author’s environmental conscience. The tree of the story, which for Marta represents a haven of peace and tranquillity and a link with the idyllic past, comes up against the greed that has infected the present, and ends up threatened from the ‘inside’. Typically, the point is made through clever understatement rather than through some rabid dénouement.

Martin of L-Għerusija is another typical product of the modern hedonistic society and whose flaunting of money and possessions makes him feel so powerful as to trample on the personal values of others.

Indeed, betrayal in one form or another seems to run in several of these stories. Whether it is a son betraying a family heirloom for the sake of lucre, or a young man’s hopes of an easy sexual adventure being dashed, or a priest’s learned exposition on girls’ names being finally ignored, or a girl’s fond hopes of achieving marital bliss with a typically showy playboy end with a blood liberation, or the baron’s mistress falling for the minstrel in a love fated for a tragic end, …

Also fated for a tragic end is the love that springs between Maria, the count’s wife, and the Spanish knight Molina in the last story on the anthology – Ir-rakkont ta’ Ħatambu – which is narrated in a sort of unrhymed verse.

The interrogation of the author Adamov in Dritt għall-Punt includes an impassioned defence of the right of authors to function as a formative conscience in a society that reeks of totalitarianism. The dark atmosphere that predominates seems to leave no room for optimism, if not, we want to believe, in Adamov’s spirit.

Six of the stories are named after and inspired by various localities (Barcelona, Budapest, Casablanca, Venice and Piazza Navona). Like most of the other stories they revolve around tense human relationships, very often on fond hopes of sexual conquests that turn bitter or never even happen. In all of them Friggieri manages to convey a definite sense of place without ever going to excessive detail which, after all, the genre does not allow.

L-Ikraħ, set in the streets of the Alfama quarter of Lisbon, shows the oft-inexplicable nature of human love, while Storja Antika, the account of a thwarted love recorded in letters discovered by chance, is used to justify the reader’s self-enclosed misanthropy.

Esperiment li Rnexxa takes off from a science-fiction situation with two men whose brains had been transplanted into each other, but the reader is led to muse about the question of identity itself.

Certainly any writing by Friggieri does not need much shouting in the market and this antho­logy deserves and is bound to find a wide and appreciative audience.

It would have been a tad more helpful had the publishers used each story’s title as a header on its odd pages instead of the book’s title.

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