A truly spirited banquet
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A truly spirited banquet

Joseph W. Psaila: Pranzu Statali - Meta Valletta Eighteen Qajmet Il-Mejtin
BCD Printing Ltd, Victoria

Joseph W. Psaila is no newcomer to the literary scene; this is in fact his sixth publication in verse, and those who have enjoyed his Il-Purgatorju 360˚ will revel in these 20 cantos even more because they are closer to home. Both books are more or less in the same vein, oscillating from the very serious to the humorous and whimsical.

Here Psaila imagines what a banquet for a number of protagonists of our history, organised on the occasion of Valletta 18, could have been like. And the fete he provides is a truly spirited one.

Grouped around 20 tables are some 140 personages, some very well known, others known only to scholars. I suppose many readers will question the list of invitees and the ‘why’ regarding those excluded. As for St Paul, we discover why he is not on this list in the very first 24 verses. 

The first canto is dedicated to Gozo (no surprise here) and the table is occupied, surprisingly, by the only two immortal characters invited: the nymph Calypso and Ulysses. A story of love and submission delicately versed.

The last canto is reserved for the top table occupied by the ‘top’ personalities. In alphabetical order: Borg Olivier, La Valette, Mintoff, Muscat Joseph and Michelle, Napoleon and Josephine. Not all these have a speaking part.

I will not give out any spoilers regarding those around the other 18 tables. I will just say that all of them give their personal take of the events in which they, or others, were involved. Hence it is difficult to detect signs of bias by the author.

Few are the real heroes gracing these tables, most are ‘anti-heroes’. The general tone is therefore an attenuated mock-heroic. There is neither ‘hero’ idolisation nor vilification of those others who have hitherto been presented to us as unredeemable villains. Indeed, Psaila corrects negative opinions we have about some of these – say, Verres, Monroy or Grandmaster Lascaris – and partially redeems them by quoting the latest historical research.

Some names are pushed up a rung or two and others pulled down. Among the latter is that giant La Valette, and even poor St Agatha: “Hu kien ħabat għall-Imdina/u abbanduna dan il-pjan/ħin Sant’Agata mis-swar xirfet/u sfrattatlu dan il-għan. //u l-wejter ħaseb f’qalbu, u fil-fond f’din l-okkażjoni/mhux ta’ b’xejn, f’Għawdex Sant’Agata/m’għandha l-ebda devozzjoni.”

The connecting links between the various speeches of the invitees are provided by the narrator who makes very able use of these spaces to pass a whole range of comments: very serious, plaintive, impish, ironic, tongue-in-cheek – the works. 

A clever and delicious touch to this banquet is given by the different waitresses and waiters who serve each table. Far from passive tray-carriers these. They are, one could say, not only the author’s mouthpieces but often also ours: well-informed, indeed ‘diplomati’ in local history, who silently chew over what they hear but at times cannot help intervening in the conversations of these grandees. About the waiter who waits on Cicero and Verres we are told that he “sabiex hu l-istorja tagħhom/kien sar jaf mija fil-mija/kien mar studja l-Verrini/fil-kors twil ta’ filgħaxija.” Very many are the humorous touches in the poem, and in various languages.

But if a first reading will amuse and teach all readers, a more careful second one will unveil the underpinning vision of each canto and of the whole work; and this is not humorous at all. The author provides many footnotes to make the reading easier. Still, many will occasionally have to look up the who or what or when of an allusion. But this is the great merit of the book: the amount of research Psaila has carried out in writing it (witness the footnotes and bibliography) is impressive. It makes this work an entertaining and reliable compendium of our history, and, more importantly, a reflection on it – one to read and make you think.

Also worthy of note are the introduction and the different dishes presented to each table.

Finally, a name index and more of the useful explanatory footnotes would have further enriched this work.

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