Frans Sammut’s Paceville

Letter sent by his son Mark to The Sunday Times (Malta) 5 June 2011

Sir

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

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