ESSAY: Dark Sides, by Adrian Grima

Dark Sides - censorship in Malta

In Malta a prize-winning 37-year old author, Alex Vella Gera, and the student who published his short in a University students’ pamphlet, Mark Camilleri, are awaiting judgement in court in March over whether the story broke the law regarding pronouncing obscenities in public when it was distributed on campus. Meanwhile, in what Malta Today has called “an ostensibly unrelated incident, Parliament unanimously agreed to substantially increase the penalties incurred under Article 208 of the Criminal Code – the same article invoked against Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri.” Adrian Grima responds to the criticism that there is nothing literary in the story.

Alex Vella Gera’s controversial narrative piece ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ is a three-page, one-paragraph monologue which is not quite a short story, in the sense that it lacks the kind of stylistic or narrative development (something like a twist, for instance) that one often expects to find in a short story. In terms of language and theme, this self-conscious first-person narrative (‘I'm being poetical,’ he brags at one point, with more than a hint of irony) is a lexically and thematically daring piece that allows the male chauvinist protagonist to expose his sexually perverse mind with pride and invites us to condemn him and the patriarchy that has produced and protected him. Right from the start, he comes across as not much more than an unwitting parody of himself.

It’s not a light piece of prose, by any standards, and I’m sure that some, perhaps many, editors of literary journals would not take the decision to publish it lightly. What makes it particularly shocking to many Maltese readers is the fact that there’s nothing like it in Maltese literature, even though there are many instances of similar narratives in other literatures to which many Maltese readers are exposed. There is also a remarkable resemblance between the protagonist of this story and many Maltese machos, with their delusions of grandeur.

Son and Father

The unnamed, wholly unreliable narrator, who seems to be addressing both an unnamed mate and his reader, thinks and speaks about women in a despicable way, but there’s no doubt that the narrative itself condemns his attitude. The author seems to be poking fun at his bigheaded, self-conscious narrator by making him claim that apart from reproducing an endless stream of foul language he can actually produce poetry (in Maltese we would say that the narrator ‘jinqela’ b’żejtu’, literally, ‘he burns in his own oil’, he's paid in his own coin). The author also shows that he is worlds apart from the narrator he has constructed by allowing him to come up with a rant that exposes his inadequacies all too clearly. Perhaps the most obvious instance of this distance between the author and his narrator lies in the ironic but equally didactic (and perhaps moralistic) title of the piece, ‘Mend what you break’. To assume that the author of Lil Hinn mill-Jien (Vella Gera’s important, and significantly different, first short novel, or novella) shares the world-view of the protagonist of ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ can only stem therefore from a seriously uninspired reading of the story. The lines about the sexually transmitted disease contracted by the protagonist, for example, sound very much like a warning to the incautious reader.

Most of the time the ‘male chauvinist pig’ of this story speaks the kind of language that you would expect him to speak. Vella Gera shows that he can master a register that is not quite his. There is, though, at least one minor slip, when the author transposes a foreign expression into Maltese despite the fact that it doesn’t sound like Maltese (‘kif qatt ma kont qabel’, as I never was before, come non sono stato mai) but generally speaking the narrator sounds very much like a hollow, self-deluded (Maltese) macho. The very first line of the piece sets the tone for the rest of it: ‘Holy Mary, that boy's a fuckin disaster with women.’ We're not sure who the boy he's referring to is: it can't really be his son he's referring to, ‘dak it-tifel’ – not so much because the narrator is thirty-five, but because there’s only one reference to him in the very first sentence, and then nothing else; it must be some other man he knows. But the idea that it is actually his son is fascinating, because one of the most interesting thematic features of this otherwise not fully developed narrative piece is the narrator's regular references to his own father, his role model. At the beginning the narrator tells us that his father taught him that men are meant to seduce women into a ‘sweet trap’, so sweet that it doesn't even look like a trap. His own experiences have confirmed that his father is ‘Fuckin right’ about this, but one gets the impression that he wants to portray his father as pretty much right about everything, especially where women are concerned. And this narrator is only concerned with women. That's the impression he wants to give, anyway.

The second reference, midway through the piece, is a sexually charged reference to his father's big nose which, he proudly announces, has stood him in good stead. The son is definitely a product of the father: apart from the women he dehumanizes, the narrator mentions no one else, neither other family members nor friends or acquaintances. This thirty-five year old seems to be unable to have a decent relationship with anyone. His world is as barren as his deranged mind. There are no other voices in the piece because he only wants to listen to himself, as he does in the stories of the perverse sexual exploits that he tells to his silenced audience. It's not surprising that his world is inhabited exclusively by himself, given the attitude he has towards women, whom he defines simply as ‘fucks’, reducing a woman to an action she is subjected to (he talks about how once ‘the mother of a fuck’ ran after him), and the way he talks to the person (persons?) who is (/are) meant to be listening to him, and given the offensive way he talks about somebody else in the very first sentence of this story.

The narrator's third and last reference to his father comes towards the end of the story. He's talking about how he sodomized a Maltese girl he ‘confesses’ to having got emotionally ‘close’ to, and swears on his father's grave that while forcing his way into her he lost his mind. The fact that he brings in the memory of his father while telling the story of what he crowns as the ‘best’ (literally, ‘most beautiful’) fuck of his life confirms that his idea of his father is indeed a very limited affair: in a way, the approximation of that sacred image of one's father in his grave with the perverse ‘rape’ of the woman he is meant to be warming up to represents the peak of his brutishness.

Although it is tempting to see this story as a stream of one man’s consciousness/emotional baggage, there is, I believe another, subtler side to the story that emerges when readers interact with it with some honesty, and that is the fact, or let’s say the idea, that there are traits of perverse desires (of violent domination, for example) in every human being. This, I think, is the darkest side of Vella Gera’s piece, but also, at the same time, its most revealing and indeed shocking one.

Short on Tropes

One of the limits that Vella Gera imposes on his story is the unreliability of the narrator and his narration, and the fact that he only rants about his sexual adventures and perversions. He may be making this all up, who can say? Who says he isn't? Who says this is not somebody letting loose the perverse neurons in his mind? There is no independent voice to corroborate his story. In reality, there need not be, because it is an account of what is going on in a person's mind: that is ‘real’ enough both for the author and for the reader. We might wish that it wasn’t a true story, but we're not so naïve as to think that no such person exists, that no such violence is perpetrated in the name of manhood. It is so telling that, as she dresses up after being effectively raped, at the end of the story the woman doesn't ‘fuckin say a word’. The narrator who tries to fill his deepest void with the emptiness of his rant is irked by the silence of his victim.

The news broke in the Maltese media of how the University of Malta had banned and thrown away all remaining copies of the student pamphlet in which the ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ was published. The online version of The Times of Malta subsequently published an endless stream of comments by readers spread over five days, including two short comments by the author himself. The first reactions by quite a few readers were so superficial that Vella Gera felt that the need to point out that ‘there's much more going on beneath the surface’ in his story than foul language. ‘Read between the lines. Read into the context of the narrator's story. Interpret his actions with a certain detachment. Observe the way he uses language to mask his lack of self-awareness. My desire was this. For readers to transcend the initial shock and learn something about human nature’ (3rd November 2009). Over a year after those initial comments (Malta Today, 23rd January 2011), Vella Gera spoke about how his story ‘refused to turn the reader's eye away from the explicit details and the explicit language’. In the same interview he rebutted the claim that he was writing like a bull in a china shop because he was unable to master the art of writing in the subtle ways that mark great literature, and rightly argued that ‘there are times when subtlety is the way to go, and other times when you've got to aim straight for the heart of the matter. That is something that Maltese literature has rarely done.’

Despite the impression that the story is short on tropes, the trap metaphor is not the only example of figurative language in the piece. There are proud exemplars of colourful expressions you hear in common parlance, as in ‘saħna tad-dimonju’ (a demon’s lust, literally ‘heat’), with its devilish or even diabolical implications, and ‘saħna ta' żiemel’ (a male horse's lust, literally ‘heat’) attributed to a woman (in Maltese, a promiscuous woman is described as a ‘debba’, or female horse). But there are also quite literary and psychoanalytically-charged accounts of how the ‘vagina squeezes you and leaves you helpless’ (‘moħli’, which translates more precisely to ‘wasted’), and how foreign underage students are perversely reduced to ‘kull tjubija ta' sess tivvibra fl-iġsma jfuħu’ (literally ‘every goodness of sex vibrating in sweet-smelling bodies’), creating conflicting interpetations of ‘tjubija’, which literally means ‘goodness’ (in relation to virtue or the taste of food) but takes on a sordid semantic dimension here, as does ‘tivvibra’, to vibrate, vibrating.


There is a falseness, a conceitedness in some of his very self-conscious tropes that shows how the narrative betrays the narrator, how the author condemns his narrator. The narrator perversely claims that the best thing in life is ‘the drowning of a smooth and wet reddish adolescence’: the text in Maltese, ‘l-adolexxenza tegħreq ħamranija lixxa u għasra’, sounds even more broken and ambiguous than my very approximate English rendering. This description of adolescence is meant to be poetic but in addition to being violent, or rather a violation, it is stilted and contrived, betraying the stilted and contrived nature of many elements of this man's account of himself.

Writing in The Sunday Times of Malta (‘Capers on campus’, 8th November 2009), anthropologist and columnist Mark-Anthony Falzon was not impressed. ‘Vella Gera's story’, he wrote, ‘is more raspberry than laurel. Apart from the stream of obscenities that would make a Thai pimp change the subject, it's a plain and pointless piece that left me totally unmoved and resolved never to look at any of his writings as long as I live.’ A rather hasty resolution, perhaps, but nonetheless one that expresses the feelings that this story has provoked in many Maltese readers. It's difficult (and pointless) to argue with that. Readers have a right to react as they wish. What I’m trying to question is the assertion that the piece is essentially ‘pointless’.

The string of comments and opinion pieces on the publication of this story that have appeared in the press since October 2009 should not, however, give the impression that there is strong public involvement in this news story. Vella Gera himself puts it eloquently: ‘What's happening now is that the mass media can easily create a fever pitch of excitement about these issues which perhaps belies their importance in the public psyche.’ The media seems to create its own issues which, despite the heated debates it may prompt, don't necessarily mean much to most of the population.

Vella Gera gave an interview to Raphael Vassallo of Malta Today in January 2011, days after being awarded second prize for his second book of fiction called Żewġ by the jury of the National Book Prize for works published in 2009, and a few weeks before the Courts of Justice hand down judgement in the case in which he stands accused of breaking Malta's obscenity laws with ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’. In this interview Vella Gera broadened the scope of his story within the framework of Maltese literature more generally by claiming that he had to do the ‘dirty work’ that was not done in the 1960s when the post-Independence writers failed to make what he calls a ‘moral revolution’ alongside the artistic revolution that they carried out – this was, Vella Gera said, ‘largely technical and philosophical, a simple distancing from Maltese romanticism, and rather hermetic’: ‘the so-called revolutionary literature of the ’60s and ’70s in Malta was not as revolutionary as it makes itself out to be. Otherwise, it wouldn't be up to me to do the dirty work.’ Despite the so-called revolutionary ’60s, he argued, Maltese literature has languished in ‘active self-censorship where some subjects are avoided, and a moral must be introduced to excuse whatever transgressions are portrayed by the artist/writer, whatever.’ Interestingly, despite intimations to the contrary by many readers, there’s definitely a moral lurking not far beneath the surface of ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’.

It is important to remember that these are quotes from a newspaper interview given by a bruised but embattled writer who’s possibly facing a jail sentence for writing a story, and they should be taken as such. Twice in the interview Vella Gera himself makes it clear that he would readily admit to having been in error about Maltese literature if somebody came up with the evidence. After all, an interview (even a written interview, as in this case) is not a cool academic assessment of the revolutionary scope of Maltese post-Independence new writing. There is certainly plenty to be said about his at times rather superficial judgement, about what the writers of the ’60s were up against and what they achieved, about what has been done since by writers of the new generation.

However, there is also an element of truth in Vella Gera's claim that much Maltese literature has been timid, shying away from the dark sides of human nature, given that some of the strongest critics of the publication of the story, and one of the most vociferous, are from that generation of ‘revolutionary’ writers. It is undeniable that ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ has altered, perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally (I don't think this is a vital issue, though many people seem to think it is), the landscape of Maltese literature. Whether people like it or not, this story has extended the thematic and linguistic reach of Maltese literature.

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