As a devoted admirer of the art of history, a tour guide and a writer who lives on an island so densely packed and renowned for its history you would be right to expect a historical novel or two from me. I recently read an article about Jon Cassar, a Hollywood producer of Maltese descent, who is mulling over the possibility of making a television series about the Great Siege of 1565. And somehow, even as a proud Maltese writer, that doesn’t turn me on.
I’ve spent my childhood learning and being bombarded by the ghostly guns of the Great Siege. We celebrate it every 8th of September. We have plays about it and poems too. And as a tour guide I spent – must spend – an inordinate amount of time explaining its importance to Maltese history. Even so, despite its undoubted influence on Maltese history, I can’t relate to it. How can I? Am I even expected to? How do writers of historical novels (the good ones, anyway) do it?
And it’s not just the Great Siege. It’s the prehistoric temples too. The Middle Ages. The Mdinas and the Hypogeums. It happened on my own backyard, but it happened to people who I can’t even begin to picture; I don’t know what motivated these people, how they lived, what their simple pleasures were, what goals they set for themselves, all crucial things to know for any novelist.
It’s different however, very different, when it comes to modern history. And by modern history I am referring to the post-War period, 1939 onwards. Whenever my grandmother used to tell me stories about the War, about what life was like in the torrid shelters, or how large parts of my hometown looked like modern-day Aleppo, and I heard the child-like excitement in her voice – I felt at home! The War, considering Malta’s near 7, 000 year history, happened yesterday. And yesterday feels so much more relatable than the historical past.
And then there were the post-War years. The beautiful, brutal political turmoil. Malta’s struggle with Britain for self-government, the Labour Party’s conflict with the Inquisitorial church of our own home-grown Torquemada Mikiel Gonzi throughout the 60’s, the acquisition of a soft Independence, then, in the 70’s, Malta’s move towards a self-sustaining economy, becoming a Republic, freeing itself from foreign military occupation, and then the vile, violent 80’s, when Mintoff and Fenech Adami’s thugs butchered each other in the streets over a fraught election that had echoes of Game of Thrones. Sorry for writing so breathlessly, but really, it can’t be helped!
Was the politico-religious crisis more exciting than the Great Siege? Most Maltese people would shout out a patriotic No. But for me, the question is irrelevant. I’ll edit it slightly, and make it infinitely more relevant: did the politico-religious crisis have more of an influence on 21st century Malta than the Great Siege? In that case, many would say yes. Granted, if the Great Siege had been lost we would have been a very different, probably far more Islamic country, but that, by now, is moot; historical what-if’s are philosophical dead-ends.
There seems to be a sense of overriding shame about Malta’s modern history by Maltese people. We don’t like to talk about the politico-religious crisis or the appalling 80’s. Those were childish times in a childish nation’s history. Nothing to shout about. In fact, an eerie hush tends to fall whenever they’re brought up. No, no, let’s talk about the Knights, please, better talk about De Valette than Mintoff or Borg Olivier! We forget, of course, that the Knights were a repressive, theocratic, corrupt institution that treated the Maltese “like slaves in their own island” and allowed as much self-government for the Maltese as ISIS allows for women. But that’s alright, they left us Valletta and St. John’s co-Cathedral – what would Malta’s tourism be like without them! Well I’m sorry kiddies, history is about fairytales for tourists.
Everyone you know over a certain age, be it your father, mother, uncle, older brother, grandfather, whatever – was involved, active and around in some way in the 80’s, 70’s and 60’s. And they have an interesting, formulaic story to tell. Malta’s modern history is a story of pupating. An island which has historically been just a tiny fragment of a much larger empire, whose people were for the most parts merely peasants, fishermen and corsairs, had begun, in the post-War years, to define itself by its own terms. Malta – and this is an important thing to state – has never been master of its own fate. Not until the 60’s and beyond have the Maltese had some semblance of real power, some control over their own destiny. So it’s not surprising that we struggled to find ourselves, hit a few bumps on the road, got in a few scuffles and so on.
Independence is like a country’s puberty. You become aware of yourself within the wider world. A world which, at the time, was caught in the icy grip of the Cold War. We had to ask ourselves: are we European, are we Western, are we socialists or capitalists, or are we something in between? Economically we had questions to ask ourselves. In 1964 every single Maltese worker was terrified by the prospect of the British services leaving the island. Where the hell would we get our jobs from now? Malta’s economy was a stagnant fortress economy dependent on the whims of our military overlords. What do we do now?
We turned, primarily, naturally, to tourism. But when you open yourself up to tourism you turn a global mirror onto yourself. What image do you want the rest of the world to see? Initially it was all about sun, sea and sand. But then, we began to ask, what is the food that defines us, what landscapes define Malta, what drinks, what customs, what gestures, and so on? We were beginning to learn that most of what makes Malta Maltese are the remnants of the people’s rural histories; our festas, our cuisine of soups, broths, cheap cuts of meat, fish, vegetables, etc, our small-town bars, our meagre but proud homes – this is what we are, but is this what we’ll always be?
No, is the answer. We looked towards Europe. We opened our own airline, began eating continental, that is mostly Italian and some French food, and we began to invest in our manufacturing, began building up our social welfare system, so now we could educate ourselves, make ourselves capitalists, and – this is crucial – for the first time in history, Maltese people had money to spend, money they themselves made, money which they didn’t owe to colonialists, money which they could spend on the vast wealth of the modern world.
And Malta’s post-War period isn’t over. We are still finding ourselves. Maybe we’ve moved on to our early twenties in our nation’s history (no wonder we party so much). But the struggle, the identity crisis we’re going through now, was forged not in the fires of the Great Siege nor in the palaces of the tyrannical Knights; no, the fire was lit in interdett, in the battles between Nationalists and Labourites, the turf wars between Mintoff and Fenech Adami, in the disastrous electoral results of 1982, in the near-civil war years that followed. No, these are not things to be ashamed of. Other countries have gone through it. I won’t be silent about Malta’s combative history. After all, history is just a series of conflicts, each and every one leading to blood-soaked, cosy progress. Marx focused on the material conflict, between the haves and the have-nots. Malta’s modern history is about the conflict between two or three different visions of what a newly-independent Malta should look like. And it’s exciting to think the conflict isn’t over. The Crusades which drove the Great Siege are long over, but Malta’s conflict of identity still rages on. And this is why I wrote a novel charting the modern history of Malta, seen from the point of view of an average family, a novel that traces its genealogy from the 1970’s until today – and that’s why I didn’t, couldn’t write a novel set in 1565!