Monthly Archives: July 2015

Our books are our country

Allow me to be quite frank in starting this article off on the premise that Malta is burdened by its fair share of politicians whose supposed broad-mindedness masks a marked provincialism and a vision as broad as the distance from home to the village square.

This said, I’ve been forced to consider that, after all, these politicians might not be the ideal representatives of the spirit of our generation; that future generations deserve better role models for the age.

So if we yearn to be represented as a nation and as a generation, where or whom should we turn to? What can truly encapsulate the essence of Malta’s contemporary spirit to an alien audience without turning our faces red?

The answer, I suspect and sincerely hope, is to be found in our books and our authors.

The publication of great pieces of Maltese literature and academia is an ongoing process with its own rich history and one can surely feel proud when making reference to these works to future generations. A look at the winners of the 2014 National Book Prize is a good indication of the diversity and of the rich content which is being produced locally.

Going through the Book Prizes one by one, we should definitely start by mentioning the much coveted prize of the Novels category, which last year was awarded to Walid Nabhan for his novel “L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji” (“The Exile of the Storks”).

Although Nabhan is generally classified as an emerging author, and is little known beyond literary circles, there’s an interesting story behind Nabhan’s prize, which might catch the attention of a wider audience.

Nabhan may technically be described as an immigrant who has lived here long enough and studied and wrote so much as to be able to master the Maltese language like a well experienced and erudite local writer. His fictitious novel, which is undoubtedly somewhat biographical, is based on the identity crisis of a Jordanian-born Palestinian immigrant who ends up living in Malta.

In the future, historians will probably find it interesting that an immigrant was as capable to not only adapt and integrate into Maltese society, but also to go so far as to contribute a deeply significant masterpiece to Maltese literature that is most relevant to its time.

In this way, Nabhan’s novel shows that what’s happening in Maltese literature may very well be a reflection of the current trends and developments in Maltese society – that literature is in itself a go-to historical source for generations to come. Authors don’t write in a vacuum and their background and context may easily spillover into their work, providing future historians and scholars more pieces with which to solve their puzzles.

Alfred Sant, a prolific writer who surely needs no introduction, won the prize in the Short Stories category with his collection of stories “Ċpar”, and the established author Immanuel Mifsud won the prize in the Poetry category with his collection of poems “Penelopi Tistenna”.

Mifsud’s rhythmic and well-constructed verses never fail to impress. With his prize-winning collection of poems, Mifsud yet again brings to the Maltese reader the sadness and grief of the emotionally disenfranchised souls and the lonely hearts in such a lucid manner that his poems feel as if they are one with your conscience.

Indeed, Mifsud’s poetry is so effective in rekindling deeply hidden if not dormant thoughts that it is hardly recommended for those who are sensitive to the depressing tunes of the broken-hearted. On the other hand, to the broken-hearted themselves, Mifsud appears as a prophet, as their subdued voice and their consolation. Mifsud keeps active in the literary field by organising and participating in public readings all over Malta with the series of readings entitled “Aqrali Qaltli”.

Toni Aquilina, a prolific translator and lecturer at the University of Malta, won the prize for the Translation category with his translation of Yasmina Reza’s popular comedy “Le dieu du carnage” translated into Maltese as “L-Alla tal-Ħerba”. Translated texts of foreign pieces of literature are still a novelty in the local reading scene, but they are becoming ever more poplar.

Some of us might remember reading the monumental translation of Dante’s “Divina Commedia” by Alfred Palma, or Pawlu Montebello’s translation of “Don Quixote”; and yet, as a nation, it is safe to say that we are still far off from translating the bulk of the world’s greatest pieces of literature into Maltese. Hopefully, authors and publishers will start exploiting the Malta Book Fund for such purposes.

Mario Azzopardi (il-Mulej), the rebel of the “Moviment Qawmien Letterarju” of the 1960s, won the prize in the Humanities and General Research section with his research on the history of the religious elements in local theatre with the book entitled “Verġni Sagri, Demonji u Boloħ għal Alla”. Adrian Grima won the prize for the Literature for Youth (ages 8 to 12) category with his collection of poems “Vleġġa Kkargata” illustrated by Karen Caruana; and yet, it was the popular children’s author Trevor Zahra who won the prize for Best Illustration with his book “Tqasqis”.

Two other prizes for the Best Design for books in English and books in Maltese were awarded to Midsea Books and Merlin Publishers respectively, with Merlin winning the same prize for the second time consecutively thanks to the work of its creative in-house designer, Pierre Portelli. The lifetime achievement award was awarded to the late Professor Godfrey Wettinger for his vast and rich body of work on medieval history.

Expect this year’s Book Prize to be as exciting as last year’s. The submissions are in and the adjudictaion board is deliberating – their choices will not simply affect the authors and publishing houses in question but also our immediate cultural ferment and eventually, our history.

A country isn’t only built by its politicians and men of faith, but also by its artists and men of letters and Malta is surely not short of authors capable of giving great and moving pieces of literature which have, in their time, caused controversy and instigated change.

Our authors, our publishers, but most of all our books are leaders and role-models who ought to be remembered and celebrated – on them and in them resides Malta’s cultural wealth and potential.

Malta’s greatest historian ever

There was once a young historian who, against all odds, rose to become Malta’s towering authority on Medieval history, slashing away at the ridiculous lies and popular myths propagated by the Church and the clerical establishment. He slashed so hard and wrote so much, that there were no more myths left to debunk.

Godfrey Wettinger, born in 1929, was raised in Mellieha by his mother after his father, a school headmaster, died when the young Godfrey still had not reached his teenage years. He started his studies in a teaching career at Malta’s teaching college, but then opted to start studying history by correspondence as an external student of the London University.

While Godfrey was studying history under the supervision of highly trained professionals, Malta lacked professional and qualified historians. When the then-Royal University of Malta opened the first Department of History in 1952, and the University was still lacking a decent library, its first head of the history department was Dominican friar Andrew Vella, who was by no means professionally trained, let alone a history (or relevant social science) graduate.

Back then, history and social sciences at the Royal University of Malta were not actually considered proper academic and scientific social sciences, but were treated rather as an extension to the teachings and dogma of the Catholic Church.

Wettinger was an essential figure in revolutionising the dogmatic terrain of the history department, and that is the very reason why the established authorities made it so hard for him to join the University of Malta as a full-time lecturer.

On September 3, 1965, Wettinger created his first controversy with a letter to the Times of Malta. He raised doubts on the authenticity of historical myths which had gone down in history by means of tradition rather than scholarly work, making particular reference to the myth of the origins of Malta’s colours, supposedly handed down to us by Count Roger the Norman.

After that, Wettinger was blacklisted by the guardians of ‘historical truth’, who perceived him as a radical secularist who was going to bring forth completely new historical narratives to the sacred Catholic land of Malta.

Despite literally being ‘the odd one out’, the only truly Maltese historian of his time pushed on irrespectively and objectively sought for historical truths about Medieval Malta.

He spent long hours by himself studying at his mother’s house in Mellieha or at the National Library. He picked up classical Arabic and Latin all by himself, refined his skills in paleography and read any book he deemed relevant to his studies. In the meantime, he studied for his PhD with a thesis on the history of slavery in Malta, and spent time researching and looking for Medieval documents at the Cathedral and the Notarial archives.

In 1966, Wettinger struck gold along with Dominican friar Michael Fsadni, when he found the “Kantilena” in a notarial document written by Pietro Caxaro: a 15th century document which carries the oldest text in the Maltese language. This discovery ensured the respect and recognition of the public for Wettinger, despite his historical views being generally accepted to be in direct contradiction to those of the clerical establishment.

In 1969, Wettinger applied for the second time to become a lecturer at the University of Malta. He was still short of his PhD (which he obtained two years later in 1971) but, confident of his academic abilities, refused to let this deter him.

During the interview, an irate Ugo Mifsud Bonnici asked him what he knew about Marxism. Those were Malta’s days of communist scaremongering, of mortal sin and heretical Labour parties cozying up to international anti-imperialist and socialist organisations. Wettinger was not selected and instead made way for the Jesuit priest Mario Borg Olivier, who back then didn’t even have a first degree in history. The Jesuit was the son of the Minister of Education of the time, Paolo Borg Olivier, brother of then Prime Minister Giorgio.

As it happened, just a few months after the selection process was completed, the newly appointed Borg Olivier passed away and the University had no choice but to admit Wettinger into the post.

Wettinger always suspected that Lionel Butler, a foremost Medieval historian who in a way mentored and inspired Wettinger to a great extent, was the hidden hand pushing for his appointment. This was probably correct, given that Wettinger had few or literally no friends at the University of Malta.

Since his appointment at the University, Wettinger was in a position to freely write and research whatever he wanted to. He bestowed his country with immensely important historiographic pieces, such as “The place-names of the Maltese islands” which provides the etymology and history of thousands of Maltese place names, most of them being of a Semitic and/or Arabic origin. Gradually, with Wettinger’s laborious studies, the historiographic notion that we Maltese were not actually the direct descendants of St Paul’s converts was settling in, offending many in the process and consequently leading many zealots to strategically manufacture evidence and narratives which somehow prove the popular Pauline myth.

In 2011, Wettinger presented a paper in which he clearly and without hesitation concluded that Malta had become depopulated with the Muslim invasion of 870 AD. His conclusion, based on the extensive historiographic references such as Al-Himyari and Ibn Hauqal and the complete lack of archaeological evidence which prove that there was no continuity in the Maltese population of that time, was still not accepted by those who desperately clung to their ideological and religious beliefs rather than accepted the result and work of years of professional and historical academic study and research.

But Wettinger was vindicated just a couple of days ago, when literally hours before he died, Jeremy Johns, an established Medieval historian, gave a lecture in the Aula Magna at the Old University in Valletta, where he presented a newly found Medieval document which adds to the evidence confirming Wettinger’s historiographic narrative.

Wettinger was the greatest historian Malta has ever had the priveledge of calling its own, not only because his monumental body of work has solved some of the most difficult historiographic problems of Maltese Medieval history, but because he worked in extremely difficult conditions. Who could ever imagine, that this young lad studying laboriously by himself in the humble setting of his mother’s house, was to challenge the myths and dogma propagated by the clerical establishment for hundreds of years.

Like David, Wettinger triumphed against his Goliath, but with the humblest of attitudes and in nearly complete solitude, I remain, in truth, doubtful whether Wettigner was actually a “David”. From my experience as a then history undergraduate, my student colleagues and I had the honourable opportunity to, if only for a short time, stand on the shoulders of a giant of Maltese history.

Godfrey Wettigner, 1929-2015, won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Council in the National Book Prize ceremony of 2014.