In this year’s round of the European Union Prize for Literature, the Maltese recipient was Walid Nabhan with his novel L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji, published by Klabb Kotba Maltin, which had won the National Book Prize in 2014. The awarding of the prize to Nabhan is of great significance, not only for the merits of the novel, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest novels of the Maltese literary canon, it is also relevant in the historical sense since this is a prize awarded to an immigrant who writes not in his native language but in the language of his new home country. The fact that the language is Maltese, a minor one in the global hierarchy of languages, and a language known only to the inhabitants of the island of Malta, makes this prize even more particular.
The story and themes of Nabhan’s novel make his rise to the Maltese literary college even more telling as if Nabhan is writing his own story in history through literature itself, distorting the boundary between his literary creativity and the material reality he lives in. L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji is an existential tract on a protagonist who tries to understand his identity in a reality of displacement.
This is the reality of the immigrant whose identity is changed by a voyage, and the emergence and assimilation of a new native reality. Displacement is the result of a movement from one place to another and through this process a new identity is created. This movement is caused by the fact that, for some reason or another can not build one’s home and life in one’s native country usually for political reasons or reasons of war. The new identity, the life and culture of the new home-country, which the immigrant is suddenly entangled in, comes into conflict with the old one, yet there is also the new over-all and arching identity of the immigrant himself, an identity comprised of a mixture of the old, the new and their bond through the unintended voyage.
In simpler terms, one can say that Nabhan’s novel is a novel on the spirit of the Arab immigrant who moves to Europe, from the perspective of the immigrant himself, and this is what makes it historically significant. Nabhan’s protagonist is the voice of the immigrant in a new reality and his voice is also the voice of millions of immigrants coming to Europe in our times.
This is a literary genre which is growing, and a genre heralded into Europe by immigrants themselves. In bookshops which sell books in different languages such as Librebook in Brussels you may find a shelf category dedicated to literature by immigrants in Europe, writing in their adopted tongue.
What gives an edge to Nabhan’s novel, is its very critical outlook. There is no romance, nostalgia, patriotism or love for any particular culture in the protagonist’s view. Rather, the protagonist laments on the tragic state of his people, the Arab world, but mostly on the Palestinians. The beauty of L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji lies in the thoughtful consideration of the protagonist’s consciousness and the impeccable detail of the representation. Ideology and politics infuse the book, but all of it is sublimated in the personal experience of the protagonist and his sardonic commentary.
In his old identity and previous homeland, the protagonist recalls how old people are always obeyed and their thoughts are never objected to, women are contradictorily inferior and superior to men, but men always end up having the better share of the deal, and male homosexuality is looked down upon because the arsehole is property of the community and not of the individual.
Dictatorship in the Arab world is part and parcel of the social frame of mind and the fruit-seller is as much a dictator as the police and the government. There is no love lost for the protagonist to his old home-country, but there is neither any optimism for the new world he has suddenly found himself in. Albert Camus would have probably responded to Nabhan with great acclamation.
Although this is arguably just the beginning of Nabhan’s writing career, Nabhan has already taken Malta by storm. Furthermore, his great work of literature, so unique as it is, may take over international literary circles too. Already there are plans for his work to be published in London, Beirut, Sofia and Tirana, and this is just the beginning. Nabhan has already gained respect for his impeccable translation of Adrian Grima’s poems into Arabic, published in Egypt, but it will be his works in Maltese which will probably make him one of Malta’s best known authors abroad.