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)