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The struggle between good and evil

Alfred Massa: L-Istar Tal-Imgħoddi
Horizons, 2018.

Alfred Massa’s name is now very familiar with all of those who love the traditional Maltese novel. Massa himself has dedicated many years of his life contributing to this genre of literature, as an editor of literary pages, literary societies, as well as with his very frequent participation in radio programmes on the same lines. He was also President and now Honorary President of the Għaqda Poeti Maltin. He has to his credit several poetry anthologies as well as a numerous amount of excellent novels in Maltese.

L-Istar tal-Imgħoddi saw the light in 1977, and was published by Klabb Kotba Maltin, 90 pages dedicated to All the victims of foreign dominance. And the year 2018 saw the second edition of the work, just on the 50th anniversary since the Soviet Union and the Members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia, which was between Tuesday and Wednesday, August 20 and 21, 1968.

This version, edited and revised, includes also the Foreword by Prof Ġ. Galea, written way back in 1975. With a larger type, the pages now run into 160, and the same number of chapters (11 in all) and, at the end of the book one can find various comments about the novel expressed when it was first published in 1977.

In his introduction to the novel, Galea wrote that Massa had drawn out a moral, or messages, that immediately invite the reader to reflection. He also  wrote that Massa has a way of using the novel to delve into human problems, at the same time airing his own views on the matter and argues the motive and the effect of these problems. In this historic novel, Massa discusses the values presently rapidly being eroded as time goes: the family values, goodness, honesty, friendship and trust in God. Galea’s introduction was penned 48 years ago and is as actual as ever.

Initially we meet Karm, the narrator, his wife Nina and their two sons: Alexander and Godfrey. Karm, who had studied medicine, flashes back a good number of years, right to Czechoslovakia (then still behind the Iron Curtain) during an underhand stir for freedom under President Svoboda and the Secretary of the Communist Party Alexander Dubcek. Massa immediately puts us historically into the politico-social picture, quoting the exact eventful date: July 13, 1968, when Karm and his mate, then still young men, had arrived in Czechoslovakia for a holiday after finishing university. And out comes Massa’s favourite theme: “I believe implicitly in fate”.

Massa is one for descriptions and detail, even topographic ones, including Czechoslovakian poet Jan Kollâr’s bronze monument, as well as inter-textual references which were taken from Dun Karm’s Lil Malta and Spes Ultima, together with a good number of adages, some in Latin. Also flashes from old Malta, traditions and pastimes now entirely forgotten.

Massa’s use of the Maltese language is as beautiful and correct as ever

The moment when the two young Maltese men find themselves in Prague is tension itself, replete with uncertainty and fear, as they end up in a communist country where the Catholic Church was the target of the regime. From here on, Massa unfolds a stirring friendship between one of the Maltese young men and a Czechoslovakian girl, Nina. Here the author resorts to fiction, retaining the socio-political background, in a dramatic way. And in comes Massa’s second favourite theme: “Faith in the face of adversity and great danger”.

Massa’s use of the Maltese language is as beautiful and correct as ever, with frequent surprises thrown in. L-Istar tal-Imgħoddi is a struggle between good and evil, freedom and the  oppression of a people, but also about love between a young Maltese man and a young Czechoslovakian girl. Massa also implies that the Czechoslovakians, particularly the younger generation, were certainly no gullible fools.

The story gathers momentum when its characters run to freedom. It is a physically difficult journey, which takes time. Massa reminds us that there was huge discontentment among the invading soldiers, certainly against the pressure forced upon them. Also highlighted is the effort on the part of the Czechoslovakians to hinder the invaders. Again, historical quotes from actual papers of the time, resorted to quite often, may be bordering on the tedious, but excusing the author in the name of historic accuracy within a fictitious novel.

Readers can relax for a while from the tension in the face of Prague’s crude fate, occupied as it was by the Soviets, when Massa carries them to the idyllic woods and the countryside of Pisek, dropping an environmental aside. “I understood then how we Maltese lack such natural beauty and, how Man is duty-bound to love and respect the Creator’s love and greatness.” In spite of the troubled national situation in the country, the main characters still have their share of good news.

The story recalls the obstacles, mishaps and the dangers that migrants have to go through, as they still do to this very day: forced separation from loved ones, fear, uncertainty, death. Massa shows life at its most paradoxical. He links a moment of freedom with another in which death is all-powerful. Thus, the descriptive passages, alternating between pessimism and optimism, whilst the others are just simply reflexive.

After 148 pages since the romp into flashback, Massa carries us back to the present. From dictatorship we revert to democracy. On one side, death, separation from loved ones; on the other, love between a man and a woman, the family, children. Supreme is the idea that man’s life is not an easy one, but solidarity and faith in a better life await on the other side.

Some may sneer at a novel containing such high moralistic issues, as many others will indubitably go for a good, clean story with no complexity of content. L-Istar tal-Imgħoddi, 50 years after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and 41 years from the first edition of the novel, will surely recapture its own actual meaning in a world, not so far away from us, where the powers that be still manipulate weak minds, a world where respect towards nature has diminished drastically, a world where the movements of desperate people in search of a better life, and the struggle between good and evil, are still tragically real.

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