Malta: a mixed bag

I was concerned when Happy Weekend arrived. The cover looked uninspiring with its stock image of a coffee-shop cappuccino and the write-up on the back from one Stanley Borg seemed to have lost something in translation: ‘To act or not to act. That is the question. But anyway, what was the question?’

The signs weren’t good. Luckily – perhaps because of the lack of other books in translation from Maltese on my radar – they weren’t bad enough to stop me giving it a try.

Focusing on characters who deviate in one way or another from the paths society expects them to follow, Immanuel Mifsud’s collection of short stories puts everyday life under the microscope and shows up the bugs and gremlins squirming out of sight. From divorcees and dropouts to runaways and even psychopaths, it unfolds the lonely paranoias that form the background noise to much of daily existence and traces the threads that bind us.

Often, the writing has a wistful quality. ‘I see someone I knew who has become today what he was destined to be and I have remained what I was and have become nothing,’ laments the protagonist in ‘Violins’, one of the most haunting stories in the book, in which a young man eventually gives up drifting around Europe with his busker girlfriend only to find himself mired in hollow respectability.

Characterisation is Mifsud’s biggest strength, along with an ability to show how preoccupations thread themselves into mundane activities. Reflections on an aunt’s chastity and the desire to kill someone jostle with observations on the flavour of margarine and radio announcements. Sometimes Mifsud deliberately exploits the poignancy and comedy of apparently random juxtapositions, as in ‘I’d Thought the Flowers had All Died’, which follows a character trying to make a connection with someone amid the bluster of an internet chatroom.

This sharp contrast between surface meaning and deeper significance can have a powerful effect. In ‘Zerafa’, for example, a story that depicts the adolescence of a sadistic rapist, the gulf between the abuse the protagonist suffers and will later mete out, and the well-meaning but bumbling attempts of outsiders to help him is painfully clear – even if the heaping of atrocity upon atrocity veers towards the gratuitous at the end.

Mifsud is fond of weaving time into his stories and uses some form of deadline or time passing to focus each of the opening three stories. As you get deeper into the collection, the reasons for this become clear: while the author may shine at characterisation, his sense of structure and pacing is less secure. Several of the stories ramble on longer than they should or peter out apologetically. The result is that the work in the latter half of the book cannot compete with the opening pieces, and readers may find their fingers itching to flick.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt Mifsud has talent. I’d be interested to see how this collection compares to his other work, particularly his 2011 European Prize for Literature-winning book Fl-Isem tal-Missier (u tal-Iben).

If you know of other Maltese literature that deserves a mention, it would be great to hear about it. Leave a comment and let me know.

Happy Weekend by Immanuel Mifsud, translated from the Maltese by Rose Marie Caruana, Mary Darmanin, Albert Gatt and Maria Grech Ganado (Midsea Books, 2006)

12 responses

  1. Hi, I’ve read this book too, and though I might have been a bit more impressed than you, one should perhaps mention this collection is from the writer’s early works. His award winning book (which has already been translated and published in English) is very different to this collection, should I say a more mature work perhaps? Also I think I prefer his poetry, but that is definitely a matter of opinion. Other Maltese writers worth mentioning are Pierre Meilak (not sure he’s been translated into English) and Simon Bartolo, who specializes in young literature.

    • Brilliant, thanks so much Maria – it’s great to have an insight from someone who knows Maltese literature well. I’ll add those other writers to the list so that other visitors can check them out too.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. Heartfelt thanks for this spotlight on Happy Weekend. Regarding the “sense of structure and pacing”, unfortunately, Happy Weekend was very badly edited, with paragraphs often accidentally joined, thus removing the necessary pauses and switches, and essentially affecting the rhythm of the narration. Apparently the publishers sent the wrong pdf to print… Here is a review of HW in the Times of Malta:

    Pierre J. Mejlak is in fact translated into English:

    Have a good Sunday,

  3. And regarding the editing of the Times of Malta review, they have this annoying colonial habit of placing “Mr / Mrs / Miss” before a surname, even of an author… Apologies for that too πŸ™‚

  4. Pingback: Eurovision of books 2013 what to read from the final | Winstonsdad's Blog

  5. I wrote a book last year in response really to all of the things you’ve said (though I didn’t realise it at the time of course!). The problem with my book is that it’s in English causing all kinds of controversies because I’m British. My English is the result of being a native of the UK and having and MA in Language and Creative Writing. Because of that a lot of Maltese speakers were put off by my book. It’s 100% Maltese, but written in English. My characters, plot and location is all Malta.
    That said, when a book is taken into the hearts of the Maltese here it’s a big thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to garner some great feedback and love.

    The next one in the series is out next week – so if you like Malta – take a look πŸ™‚

  6. Find anything you can by Oliver Friggieri…he has been translated and he is one of the best living Maltese authors. Also , try reading My Century by Herbert Ganado…it’s an account of the twetieth century in Malta/autobiography. However beware as it is written by a politician during some of Malta’s most turbulent political times. However, despite disagreeing with some of his views, it provides a fascinating insight into Malta’s history during our last days under the British.
    Try finding Trevor Zahra and Kilin as well.

  7. Agree with MG above – Friggieri is probably the most prolific writer in the Maltese language and many of his works have been translated into other languages. One interesting insight in the intricacies of life on a small Mediterranean island at the turn of the century would be Oliver Friggieri’s It-tfal jigu bil-vapuri around the year 2000 (which has been translated and published in English in 2013 Children Come by Ship (published by Austin Macauley Publishers).

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