I Think Therefore I Am Maltese




The best kind of patriotism is the one that remains unspoken. I am not a patriot, because I subscribe to the Voltarean rationale of patriotism:

“It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.”

I love travel, diversity and humanity itself – cousins who are all, like myself, struggling not just to survive, but to survive with purpose, all over the world – too much to ever declare I love one country, one people, above any other. It would mean closing too many doors, embracing boredom and a lack of imagination. Besides, being born in this particular country was a sheer fluke – a highly unlikely one, in fairness; what are the odds of being born in one of the world’s smallest countries!

The great German writer WG Sebald once wrote:

“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.”

This is a profound declaration coming from a man whose nationality demands so much. To be a German born in the second half of the 20th century is to be haunted and hounded by the ivy-like shadows of Nazism, Holocausts and Swastikas. How does an individual shake off such a behemoth of a collective memory?

Not easily. It would take a grand effort of will only a handful of fellow primates could muster. I’m reminded of the self-declared ‘Afropolitan’ author Taiye Selasi who was born in London, raised in Boston, and whose parents are Ghanaian. Now she lives in Rome. She is one of the few, although the number is increasing, amount of people who have been raised in the four winds and thus have an intimately internationalist make-up rather than a nationalistic one. But these are the exceptions.

Most writers are influenced, willingly or not, by their countries, their histories and their petty customs. Even those proud emigrants like Joyce and Sebald who abandoned their country of birth write obsessively about what it is to be Irish or German. But what’s interesting about such writers (and I’m reminded of other country-obsessed authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Khaled Hosseini) is not what their country makes them write about, but how it makes them write.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote magic-realism because that’s what he was raised with, on his grandmother’s lap, surrounded by the fantastic jungles and miraculous people. Khaled Hosseini writes in a terse, empathetic style as a reaction to the brutality he makes us see in his native Afghanistan. Joyce wrote, well, like Joyce, as a reaction to the then stiff, rigor-mortis Catholicism of Ireland. Even, I would fathom a guess, Nabokov wrote in his florid, eccentrically perfect style on account of his aristocratic Russian background. These authors saw the zeitgeists of their world through the lenses of their upbringing.

When you realise that something is universally true it takes surprisingly long to admit the corollary: that this universal is true for you, too. It has taken me a while to see, admit, realise, how my country, Malta, has influenced my own style. It was lazy of me not to make the deduction, I took things on face value, stupidly, I thought: I never really wrote about Malta so I’m free from its didactic influence. But it’s never that simple.

Whilst I never wrote a novel about Malta, nor indeed hardly ever set a novel in Malta, almost all of my main characters are and always were Maltese. And more than that: the themes that have come to besiege my writing bear the smell of Maltese soil, that sun-beaten, beautifully dry red soil of ours.

If you refer to a previous post I wrote about my literary raison d’etre – The Muse of Engagement – you’ll be reminded of the themes that have chosen me. Themes of man’s worth, seeking happiness, the nature of happiness, and man’s desire to find purpose in a purpose-less, god-less universe. These are all, if I can shoot my arrow that far, extenuations of a society and class that finds itself uncomfortably mired somewhere in economic purgatory.

Malta is a remarkably old country, with unchanged borders, a tiny archipelago un-altered since the dawn of human habitation – yet affluence is a frighteningly modern phenomenon. Around 50 years old, I would gather. Which is nothing for a country with a 7, 000 – year history.

The origins of our relative (and miraculous, given our size and resource-less earth) affluence dates back to Independence and later, in the 1970’s. This was when Malta was beginning, for the first time in its history, to move away from a Fortress Economy which boomed only during war-time, to which we were bound by our Imperialistic British colonisers, and began moving towards a more diverse, capitalistic model. Our first factories began opening up, a tourist industry was born, our national airline took to the skies, and foreign investment started trickling in. This meant that the average Maltese worker had a broader choice of career than simply farmer or dockyard worker. He could educate himself, work in tourism, in banking, in industry, property and, with the advent of free education, a working-class man could even be a lawyer or a doctor! Social mobility was finally introduced on our rigid islands – and this only yesterday!

Ambition was imported into Malta. Now it was no longer enough, didn’t suffice, to be a farmer or a mechanic. You had no excuse for not being a businessman, an academic, a doctor. All the requisite paths were open to you. Only the lazy stayed behind. And in this new age of affluence no one wanted to be the lazy one.

But just as Napoleon tried to turn Malta from a theocratic backwater into a progressive Republic overnight in 1798 and failed violently, so, I feel the revolution into the capitalist age has failed on our innately rural, backwater island. We are uncomfortable with ambition. Yet, of course, in such a tight-knit, Big Brother community, no one dares admit it. We all of us, most of us, (not counting the sizeable criminal and under-class) strive to be something, someone, to make more money than our parents, forefathers, as if we were somehow ashamed of their tea-in-a-glass simplicity.

President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying, not without a certain prototypical American pomp:

“The credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena, who strive valiantly; who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spend themselves in a worthy cause; who at best know the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if they fail, fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Ambition, striving and great devotions are endemic traits of American, British, and many European cultures. Not so in Malta. And it makes sense, historically. For the duration of our 7,000 year history we were a tiny puppet, an ant of a colony, on the fringes of a much grander empire, be it the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Spanish, French or British. So striving, for us, meant danger, meant hopelessness; no, better instead be a cold and timid soul and let life pass you by, let the gods of empire have their way with you, and maybe get a few kicks along the way.

Post-colonial Malta was shocked by the stroke of Independence. Suddenly we found ourselves masters of our own destiny. Yet, a certain amount of Stockholm Syndrome lingers on in our culture – and I admit to be prone to it myself. Over the centuries we have, out of necessity, mastered the art of simple-living. Having to know the simple pleasures of good food, family, feasts and fraternity. Leave philosophy, literature, art, politics and doctrine to the Master. For this, I say objectively, and not unaffectionately, Maltese art, literature and philosophy have always had poor productivity (unless it was driven, inspired and commissioned by foreigners). Music is an exception, but that is an exception that proves the rule; our great tenors, composers and musicians are all heirs of an art-form that fits in just as comfortably in Covent Garden and farms and villages alike.

The urge for this kind of simple-living is still strong in us. Of course it is, one generation can’t overcome centuries of adaptations overnight. So we hover, like flies in a current, on the peripheries of modern capitalism and timeless bona-fide idleness. And I find this conflict, this hovering, surprisingly preeminent in my writing.

Oscar Wilde, Irish-born, Victorian-made wit, uttered the words I would, perhaps, one day have engraved on my grave stone:

“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

My novels are an exploration of this didactic paradox. Of characters determined to achieve dreams they never chose, frightened that, by achieving them, they would lose something purer, a lifestyle that is more desirable, simple, grandiose. My novels are an encyclopaedia of such characters; working-class people aiming necessarily high, trying to be someone other, and in the end succeeding at a terrible, intimate cost. This amount of variating on a theme naturally reflects a personal struggle.

Through this looking-glass, I see the world. Because, blissfully, my country has been free from war, poverty and true suffering for the last 70 years or so, I don’t have to be obsessed by those subjects which are already well-covered by authors greater than I (authors from Syria, Africa, Central America). I am free to turn my attention to the profundities hidden in the shadows of superficiality. And I’ve observed, through my tinted Maltese lens, that a lot of people in the West don’t know how to live.

The Italian film-maker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini had a gut feeling, Marxist though he was, that only among the working-classes does a sense of awe, wonder and myth survive. I have a similar hunch – that only among people who live a humbler, simpler life, does true happiness reside. In other words, those who live as my Maltese ancestors lived for centuries. People who are raised around bare necessities know better than anyone else the value of a good party, good music, wine, food, travel, fashion and adventure.

Human beings have an nth, very powerful sense: the ability to synthesise happiness. Happiness isn’t as dreamy, as fleeting an acquisition as is perceived. A man can be happy without legs, can even be happy living with something torrid and malign like cancer or Aids. Happiness isn’t an option. The human body needs it the way it needs food or drink. But being so easy to acquire makes us sceptical. Our social instincts – and that’s all it is – makes us slaves of relativity.

Loathsome as the Ten Commandments are, as abhorrent as we must find them, I would dare say, disgustingly, that there might be a hint of a truth in the commandment: ‘thou shalt not covet thy your neighbour’s…’ This commandment is repulsive because it convicts us of thought-crime, and this dictatorial, masochistic, it is also an excuse for laziness, surrender and of course it lumps wives – women – in the same category as chattel , mere possessions.

But we shouldn’t measure our happiness with another’s. We are all designed differently by our genes, our nurture, our environments, thus adopting, borrowing, leeching another’s dreams is akin to seeing a child on the ground, on all fours, acting like a dog. As for Maltese people, I think we are being jostled and torn apart by a tug-of-war, with history and simplicity on one hand, and modernity and ambition on the other.

Just as Malta doesn’t look quite right with skyscrapers, nor will it ever, so Maltese people will never quite be comfortable being those who “strive valiantly”. And there’s no shame in this. Whilst I’m not saying all Maltese people should live like farmers, I do, at the same time, think we should never lose the ability to do so!

Yearn for great devotions, enthusiasms, careers and legacies, by all means, but as you go along never lose the gift of being able to stop, slow time down, cook a good meal, have family over, enjoy the sea, the summer nights, and the passions of love and hate!

In my writing I like to explore how ambitions can go awry, and how laziness can overcome life, I look into the purpose people assign to their lives, the passions they surround themselves with, all in an age where everything is possible, absolutely everything. And I think, it’s not just Maltese people who suffer from this. It’s humanity at large. We are all hunter-gatherers living in the technological century. What havoc does that wreak, what numinous beauty does that allow for, what tensions, what strife, what pleasures, what contradictions arise from this?

And at the end of the day, maybe running away is the only true choice we have available to us.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Justin on all things Maltese 😉


  2. Elene says:

    This is fascinating. I don’t know anything about Malta, though my grandfather was from Sicily, and now I would like to learn.

    Here in New Mexico I think we have some similarities in attitudes and conflicts to those you describe– a rural and relatively poor place for the most part, with a downtrodden and fatalistic kind of feeling but deep traditions. That contrasts with centers of technological innovation and areas of progressive politics.

    By the way, I got stuck on your use of the word “extenuations”; I don’t think it’s really what you meant.


    1. justinfenech says:

      And that’s the beauty of a modern, diverse world, where we can learn that the soul of one tiny nation is twinned with that of an American state halfway across the world! Thank you for sharing your thoughts! By all means come see Malta for yourself, you’ll feel right at home 🙂


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