“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
This is a year which, historically, shall be noted for the rise to media superstardom of Daesh and radical Islamic terror. A year that opened with the Charlie Hebdo murders and closed with the barbaric Paris attacks. (The year 2016 will be replete, I predict, with novels and films dealing with terrorism and Islam.) 2015 also saw the confirmation we were-not awaiting, that Russia, with its new-old Tsar is an expansionist behemoth looking to steam-roll its way through neighbours and (supposed) allies alike.
And if 2015 will need any kind of title or nomenclature it could do with being called The Year of Migrants – the year which saw a series of mass migrations un-paralleled since the Germanic invasions of Roman Europe in the early Middle-Ages (now, it is Germany itself that is being invaded). And Europe has had to do a lot of reflection, be it because of Paris or the migrant influx, it has had to do a lot of soul-searching, and, what it discovers is yet to be seen. Let us hope, it doesn’t turn to its extremist, nationalistic history, as seems to be happening in countries like France and Hungary.
It has been encouraging to see, speaking of politics, a return to the media forefront of democratic Socialism. Bernie Sanders in the US (they can’t elect anyone else but him), Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and even in Rome, a miraculous oxymoron: a clearly, no-two-ways-about-it, socialist Pope. All of these three, and the movements they are inspiring, are encouraging because they are all making climate change and the environment frontline agendas. This new wave of tolerant, progressive socialism will be crucial, I feel, in combating the rise of extremism in any form (be it Christian, Islamic, or fascist).
Having set the historical parameters of the year almost passed, I would like to be self-indulgent and, as if a good hermit, reflect on my own progress, thoughts, ideas, inspirations and woes of 2015. We all have our own personal history to write, never isolated, but crucial to our future, ever-developing selves. Looking back, we can help map out our Fate, looking back is the key to free-will.
On a non-literary level the buying, re-working and embellishing a house has been something of a highlight. My kingdom awaits, it feels; boxes full of Valencia posters, Greek figurines, endless books and Alhambran coasters await to be unpacked. The house that will be, to use Richard Dawkins’ phrase, my extended phenotype. The extension, physical and aesthetic, of myself: like the Picture of Dorian Gray, look at my house and you will see, not my sins, but my delights.
Philosophically, a new, hopefully permanent theme has emerged in my thoughts: the idea of seeking out happiness and meaning in a life devoid of meaning. We all want to be happy, but none of us ever stop to ask how and what is happiness. I have been doing just that throughout the year. In this I have found the philosophy of Epicurus increasingly useful. There is a lot of parallels between his thoughts and my beliefs:
“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
“He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing .”
“Not what we have But what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”
“We must, therefore, pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.”
And it seems as though everything I have written in 2015, be it socially, politically or whatever motivated, has been a way for me to discover what it is that makes me happy, what is the purpose of my life (seeing as how, like the rest of you, I live in a godless universe without meaning, and thus, filled with whatever meaning we wish to impose on it). And now, at the end of this migratory year, I seem to be close to an answer. But first, before the destination: the journey.
I began the year writing a novel which has suffered the regrettable fate of remaining unfinished. A World of Our Own Making – my first attempt at writing a prehistoric novel along the lines of The Inheritors. It tapped into the migrant zeitgeist and featured a boy whose tribe is killed and is forced to wander the African deserts, until he is found by a tribe that believe themselves to be the last humans on earth. A magic-realist novel that was my way of asking the question: would having been born in a more simple world made me (and all of us) more happy? In the end it was a question I couldn’t answer… the novel fizzled out. Looking back now, I do miss Khoroe – maybe I will revisit the novel in the coming year.
My favourite quote from the novel: The baby that grew inside her felt as though he was the mirror image of his father. She felt her baby raping her from the inside and many a time she had to be stopped from cutting herself open, as she shouted, “I’ll throw the monster over the cliffs before it even sees the light of day!
Something that pleased me in the year was an interview I gave for a local magazine; I realised that the narcissistic vein runs deep in me. Writing and writers maybe solitary by nature but they crave nothing more to be read and listened to by as wide an audience as possible. We are the monks with the lust for fanfare!
After I aborted A World of Our Own Making I took the time to publish on Amazon two novels I had written the year before. Homo Ferus, a murder story about a feral child raised by dingoes being introduced to human society. And, my most tragic, darkest novel Magnetic Midnight, the story of a man who has to convince his girlfriend not to take her own life, having lost the will to live after a damaging stroke, a tale about the loss of art and dreams that ought not to be fulfilled. It is the novel I am, thus far, most proud of.
In the words of one reviewer: Magnetic Midnight depicts an authentic picture of the very real, incredibly heartbreaking start-to-finish relationship of Ava and Vincent—characters that come to life in an almost melodious tapestry of prose.
As for Homo Ferus:
The next novel I wrote was one that directly dealt with man’s quest for happiness, was called My Noon, My Midnight. It was a novel writ close to home, set in my hometown of Hamrun, where thugs and poets live side by side, are one and the same, and features the story of Alexander, who wants nothing better than to find the perfect happiness i.e. the happiness which does not bring suffering or pain to anyone else. He falls in love with a Nicaraguan girl, and it was a great thrill writing about that country of rainforests and revolutions, a Cuba away from Cuba, a land with more poets than millionaires. The girl, Sofia, tempts Alexander away from the drudgery of Malta, and they go to live like champagne socialists in a beach-side town in Nicaragua, spending their days, cheffing, drinking, swimming, hiking and loving. But this paradise must come to an end, purely because theirs was a love that excluded their family. It was a love that cost too much. Whilst writing my novel I fulfilled my dream of leaving my humdrum hometown behind for somewhere green, exotic and exciting. But at the same time, I realised what cost I would have to pay for those dreams.
“That every moment of life is a moment lived in defiance of death and, as such, our defiance should be copious and downright Marxist in its revolutionary exuberance.”
“But in a sky cascading with roaring tempests, you can expect to see the most beautiful rays of unceasing light.”
“What does it matter how we make money – isn’t it more important what money makes of us?”
And here is a blog I wrote whilst writing the novel Why We Still Need Socialism. Something else that I discovered this year, or at least confirmed: I am a socialist, politics must be done with the less-fortunate in mind, raise the floor and civilization will rise with it. And, inversely, the working-class have a lot to teach us: living a simple life, with good friends, good ideas, and good drinks, what more do you need! It is a humble, meaningful existence that makes no excessive demands on the planet. https://justinfenech.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/why-we-still-need-socialism/
Speaking of the planet and the environment… I was absolutely delighted, this year, to have been declared a member of the prestigious International League of Conservation Writers! It help affirm my beliefs that conservation is the true war we’re fighting, all the terrorism is just a side-show. Happy is he who can partake in that battle, happy is he who can understand, immerse and protect nature, her non-human inhabitants, and preserve it for many more generations. Nature is a great source of happiness to us, it is up there with wine, women and song as one of those pleasures that deifies us – and writers ought to convey that, the way, for so long, Sir David Attenborough has done for so long!
Do have a read of their remarkably important website: http://www.ilcwriters.org/index.html
Remarkably, for someone I consider to be set in his ways, sorted, and focused, after I finished writing My Noon My Midnight I had a premature literary mid-life crisis. At first I was displeased with the novel, couldn’t wait to finish it – and I didn’t know why. (Looking back on it now I wish I could start writing it again, to retrace the adventure it took me on!) It felt as though it wasn’t enough, wasn’t me, somehow. But then, what was me? Who am I as a novelist, what do I stand for, what’s my style, what do I have to say? They are a set of questions as hard to answer as any I have encountered. And I still haven’t answered them satisfactorily.
My first attempt at an answer was the next novel: Silence Of All Things. A return to what truly excites me in novels, life and everything. A novel set in my valiant Valencia, that Spanish city I love better than any other. It was an unabashed Hemingway-esque novel, with the structure of a Kundera, digressional, academic, and philosophical, but bawdy and lusty too. Writing it, I admit, was a great buzz. I had to re-visit the city, sift through golden memories, and learn of new streets and feasts I had yet to discover. It told two separate stories that came together halfway through: of James, the bored Maltese contactor, and Razia, the Ukrainian model craving nothing but the study of whales. It brought together everything I loved, conservation, hedonism, Valencia, Hemingway… and yet, it still left me with an inexplicable hole.
“Every single life on this planet cowers at the presence of death. But not you. You fight the fight that cannot be won.”
After Silence Of All Things I sort of wavered, between a rock and a rocky place, going round in pirouettes, knocking on a knob-less door. To try and write myself out of the existential-literary conundrum I turned to short-stories and I planned and wrote a collection of travel-stories that featured men and women seeking out answers to their lives lack of purpose, abroad: it was written, inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses, in a very modernist, de-structured way. Tides That Bind had stories set in Rome, Sri Lanka, Prague, Dublin and elsewhere, they are all stories I am incredibly proud of, dare I admit, and they set me off thinking about another long-held dream: that of being a travel writer.
I feel at home, this much I’ve learned, writing about travel. Not just about foreign places, but actual travel stories, showing how people change their lives and entire characters when they’re abroad. This much is true: travel is its own childhood. We become children abroad, interested in only two things: learning and playing. No wonder it is so addictive. No wonder it makes such great literary material. And yet, as proud as I was of Tides That Bind, I was still left in the lurch.
But at least, during summer, the grand Maltese summer, I was immersed in the right kind of books, namely Zorba the Greek and Ulysses: everyone should read them and die somewhere in their pages. Somewhere between the Cretan coast and the Temple Bar.
The months between summer and end of year were a peacock’s tail of kaleidoscopic writing. On my blog I turned to writing about all sorts of subjects, from literary reviews, to travel blogs, to political and religious essays; churning my way through the intellectual mine-field that just wouldn’t sort itself out. Who am I supposed to be, God damn it!
I know this much, let’s recap:
I’m an Epicurean, a Darwinist, a Socialist, an Anti-theist, a Liberal, a Writer… but what kind of writer? Who are my literary predecessors: Salman Rushdie, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Umberto Eco, Martin Amis…?
As promised, now: the destination. I’ve come to realise that I am, whether I want to be or not, a true Epicurean. I take pleasures in the simple pleasures, a few drinks, good food, and of course there is a monastic streak of wisdom-based enquiry. Learning, reading and contemplation give me great thrills. I am a livingbreathingtalking Jekyll and Hyde: simultaneously monk-ish and rover. I would travel the world, given the chance, just to find a place I’d never have to leave. Wandering hermit. Inured to the great passions of civilization: music, poetry, science, literature, sport (football: don’t talk to me of Aston Villa!) and nature. These, and a great dose of love and passion, are what make me happy. And how do I reconcile the two extremes in my character, the hermit and the wanderer, simple: writing.
Everything I do everything I feel serves but one purpose: to enhance and embellish my writing. I know, as many of us do, that there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell or Nirvana or anything. And I cannot be sure – for who can be – that I will have children, who knows. But what I do know is that the one thing that will outlive me in the decades to come, is my writing. That is what keeps me getting up in the morning and what keeps me dreaming. I may be both hermit and wanderer, or neither, but either way, it is my thoughts and narratives that define me.
This has become clearer and clearer as 2015 comes to an end.
The world is full of subject matter, so full of inspiration, tragedy, wonders and horrors, and it is our job to say something that no one’s ever said, to export a thought never before exported, to seek to provide beauty in dark times, just as the war poets like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves left us wondrous verses from the War to end all Wars, or the Jewish writers of the second-half of the 20th century left us great novels about the Holocaust, so must all writers and artists now be the ones to make civilization civilized.
To that end, I finish the year writing a novel that hopes to similarly seeks to turn tragedy (the Libyan crisis and the religious abuse of children) into art. A novel which also deals with migrants forcing to flee their war-torn home, thus, unintentionally I assure you, the year ends on a symmetrical note, finishing as it started with migrants in mind. As indeed they should be, as we look towards an unsure 2016. A year in which I hope to continue to grow as the world continues to shrink. Tick-tock we’re not getting any younger.