From The Sunday Times (Malta), Sunday, May 22, 2011
Joe Felice Pace writes:
It was 10 a.m. on March 3, 1994, at a time when the controversy that rocked the Akkademja tal-Malti was at its height.
In a way I was in the thick of it, trying to bring some sense into a matter that was mainly the result of a clash of personalities.
To be precise, I was on his side – that ‘revered’ body needed a thorough shake-up, right down to its very bones. But then I disagreed strongly with his way of dealing with the matter, even if that was his way of trying to bring about things about which he had strong feelings.
And he knew that, so much so that at 7 p.m. on Easter Saturday of that year he asked me to arrange a ‘conciliatory’ meeting with Fr Joseph Ghigo, who had been replaced as president by that other great writer Achille Mizzi, one of the group (of which Frans was the most vociferous exponent) that had taken over the running of the Akkademja.
That meeting never took place because on Easter Monday Mizzi, Ġorġ Mifsud Chircop, Fr Ghigo and myself met at Mizzi’s office in Valletta and set out on a plan to heal the rift.
I answered the doorbell on March 3. There was Frans Sammut, flourishing his Il-Ħolma Maltija, which he was to consider to be his magnum opus. I knew the work had been in the writing process for some time, but did not expect to see it ready in any immediate future.
He gave me one of the few copies the printer had passed on to him and asked me whether I could participate in a panel discussion that was to be held at the launch. The other members were Mario Azzopardi and Mgr Lawrence Cachia. One of Malta’s leading folk-singers, Frans Baldaccinho (Il-Budaj), entertained the audience with a number of folk-songs, some traditional, others impromptu.
I still hold that of all Sammut’s works Samuraj takes the edge. He had asked me to go through the final version of this analysis of a changing society with a toothpick, a fact he acknowledged in a letter to this paper, and in the process could admire both his mastery of the language and his inborn call to be a novelist.
When it came to writing, he was a perfectionist. I recall his wife Catherine, with whose family I had a close relationship at the time, telling me he would ask her to do something in order to be able to describe it precisely in his writing.
One day, for example, he asked her to turn the knob of a door. He was on the point of describing the physical process the fingers go through during this simple action, so often performed automatically.
This leads me to my argumentative exchanges with him over the merits of Paceville. He had rarely ever (if ever) been to the place and based his ‘narration’ on what he used to hear about that ‘unique’ atmosphere from young people, among them possibly his children. It is the reason why the story only partially, actually very partially, reflects what went on, and in a way still does.
In fact, when the novel was unveiled at the former Methodist Church in Floriana, a group of young people who went to Paceville stood up to criticise his attempt to discuss their doings without ever having crossed the threshold of their weekly rendezvous.
Having said that, I can very well understand why he held that Il-Ħolma Maltija was his tour de force. Frans was enamoured of French republicanism. Bonaparte’s views and the achievements of the Revolution were subjects he would often introduce or refer to in discussions on historical and literary matters.
One could see his eyes shining when he was engaged in arguments of this nature. There was a vehemence in his words and gesticulation that reflected the intensity of his beliefs and feelings.
He believed that had the Maltese failed in their efforts to oust the French forces, Maltese history would have taken a very different turn, and that the insularity and bigotism of the Maltese would have met their deathknell in the early decades of the 19th century.
From an empirical point of view, his conclusion was possibly the right one.
On the other hand, would an illiterate society dominated by the clergy and run by the literate professions have been able to absorb too easily the ‘imposition’ of a way of life totally alien to century-old customs.
In his enthusiasm, Sammut practically ignored this reality.
History, as we know, dictated otherwise.
That, of course, does not in any way dent Sammut’s rightful position as one of the leading masters of modern Maltese literature.
Letter sent by his son Mark to The Sunday Times (Malta) 5 June 2011
In his insightful appreciation on my late father (“Frans Sammut”, The Sunday Times, May 22), Joe Felice Pace writes, “This leads me to my argumentative exchanges with him over the merits of Paceville. He had rarely ever (if ever) been to the place and based his ‘narration’ on what he used to hear about that ‘unique’ atmosphere from young people, among them possibly his children.”
Mr Felice Pace is right in saying my father had very little, if any, “hard data” on Paceville. Instead he gathered the “soft data” only from his students. My brother and I never were (and still are not) Paceville habitués.
I was 18 when Paceville was published. Assuming he had never been to that Mecca of whatever-it-is, like Mr Felice Pace I asked him point blank how he could write about a place he didn’t know first-hand. The answer he gave me had three limbs. First, he gleaned the “Paceville experience” from young people, as Mr Felice Pace reports. Second, Ian Fleming was not a secret, or covert agent and yet he wrote the James Bond novels. (At this juncture, he digressed on Fleming’s technique of going into minute details in his descriptions and the value of emulating it in order to benefit the economy of the novel.) Third, his Paceville is a metaphor, not a physical place.
My father’s Paceville is not a snapshot of Paceville of the 1990s. It is not an essay in history or sociology either. Instead, it is a myth, a metaphor. (When my father wanted to propose historical research, he explicitly announced it as such. This crucial point one gentleman who militates in the Maltese Language National Council seems unable to domesticate with regard to Il-Ħolma Maltija. My father did not write Vassalli’s biography. He wrote his myth.)
When we once watched together one of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy films, he told me how his generation left cinema halls whistling Morricone’s haunting motifs unable to escape from the gravitational pull of the world they had just visited. I am convinced that Leone’s treatment of his themes must have been what really left a deep impression on my father.
Leone’s Westerns are not historical documentaries, even though they are replete with everyday details of an astounding historical accuracy. Leone’s Westerns are his own original version of the West he had discovered in his boyhood and youth through the lens of John Ford’s camera. Whereas American Westerns portrayed the West as part of the nation-building process, Leone’s portray a myth-building process. His West is a mythical place. It could have been anywhere… so much so that his very first film is a transposition of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (a Japanese film on a masterless samurai in turn inspired by a 1931 American novel). Leone only needed a landscape in which the State (or any other controlling institution) is absent so that he could allow his characters to give vent to their impulses and impetuses. Leone’s West is a myth, a metaphor. It could be anywhere in the physical world, because first and foremost it is situated in its creator’s mind.
Why did I venture into this terrain? Because the same analysis applied to Leone’s treatment of his themes could be easily applied to my father’s Paceville, through which he mythified the young generation of the 1990s. For this, he did not need to go to the district called Paceville. Is anybody surprised that Kafka never went to the United States and yet wrote the novel Amerika?
My father’s Paceville is unabashed fiction. His Paceville is a metaphor. Metaphors and myths are placeless and timeless, and yet ubiquitous and everlasting. They are at once untrue and true, unrealistic and realistic. And yet, to quote Dante, “under a beautiful lie hides truth.”
Mark A. Sammut
Wednesday, May 4, 2011, 09:57
Author Frans Sammut passes away
Maltese author Frans Sammut has passed away, aged 66.
Mr Sammut, who served as a headmaster and was cultural consultant to former Prime Minister Alfred Sant, gained recognition in the late 1960s when he co-founded the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju. Later he served as secretary of the Akkademja tal-Malti – the Maltese Language Academy.
His works include the best-selling novels Il-Gagga, Samuraj, and Il-Holma Maltija. His work Paceville had won him the won the government’s literary medal.
Mr Sammut also published non-fiction works including Ir-Rivoluzzjoni Franciza: il-Grajja u t-Tifsira, Bonaparti f’Malta (also translated in French), and On the Da Vinci Code.
He also edited Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s Lexicon.
In 2006, his translation of Vassalli’s Motti, Aforismi e Proverbii Maltesi (1828) was published as Ghajdun il-Ghaqal, Kliem il-Gherf u Qwiel Maltin.
Mr Sammut, a regular commenter on timesofmalta.com, died in hospital.
The PL paid tribute to his memory, describing Mr Sammut as an author who was revolutionary and had always sought social justice.
It also praised him as a scholar of the Maltese language.
The PN also expressed its condolences and praised Mr Sammut for his literary works and his research into the Maltese language.