Joe Felice Pace on Frans Sammut

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.

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