ESSAY: Writing on the Edge by Raphael Vella

Writing on the Edge
Copyright Gilbert Calleja

To be asked to write an essay for a literary journal when one is a visual artist is to be flung directly into a dialogue between centre and periphery. Given that I work primarily with images, objects and occasionally with graphic texts, I initially felt that this proposal to present my thoughts about literature planted me in a marginal situation that I wouldn’t be comfortable with. For to draw a line, even when this line painstakingly stages the linguistic signs of an alphabet, is to exceed the transparency of the page and to project language into an opaque field in which it fidgets, trembles and kneels before the unlawful laws of another land. This land inhabited by singular, figural moments that Lyotard distinguished from the representational spaces of discursive systems in Discours, Figure1 has always been my workplace. Literature, like philosophy, has fed and still feeds this ambiguous territory, but does this nourishment alone qualify me, a worker of plastic forms and images, to write about the literary field?

What intrigued me and probably induced me to accept the challenge was the general theme of the issue, which is precisely the relationship between centre and periphery in Maltese literature. To write about the peripheral nature of a field from the periphery of that field sounds almost appropriate. Then, there is also the implicit question of ‘Malteseness’ that haunts the subject of Maltese literature and even visual art that lures me to this area, and it is a question that has fascinated me for some years. Where does a Maltese writer feel more at home, if anywhere at all: is it in the field of literature itself or in the ‘Malteseness’ of that field, if one could delineate the specificity of such a branch of literature beyond the obvious use of the language itself? And where do Maltese art and literature stand in relation to the rest of their respective fields?

Often, too often perhaps, questions like these are converted into discussions of indebtedness. In short: to whom or what is Maltese art and literature indebted? If we traditionally spoke reverentially of a small number of nations with whom we had historical, political, institutional and hence cultural relations, globalisation has now broadened this sense of indebtedness to include the whole world. If, historically, the work of artists and writers in small and rather marginal countries like ours has had to deal with the accusation of being derivative of a cultural ‘centre’, we are now being notified, very sympathetically, that we are being swallowed up by the homogeneity of a single, global currency. Before, home was “elsewhere”; now, it is “everywhere”. Geographical and economic marginality is replaced (providentially, according to some) with a global, nomadic status: artists and writers, to quote Mahmoud Darwish, now carry their homeland in their suitcase. The point is that this suitcase – the smallest of homes you could imagine – is now all over the place. If the spaces occupied by our artistic work were previously too narrow, they are now too broad. And when we are faced by the question, “what is it?” (what is Maltese art? what is Maltese literature?), some of us feel compelled to answer in the negative, that it definitely exists somewhere but not “here”.

It is also true for many contemporary visual artists I have worked with in Malta that their relationship with such a nebulous notion of Malteseness is indeed very difficult to articulate. First of all, there is the issue of nationality or geographical origin, which many artists will reject as some sort of self-defining factor. Nationalism is a polluted concept. Yet, is it sufficient for us to assert that geographical boundaries count for nothing, that only talent and individual experiences really matter, when we also know that we still need to travel to established “centres” (and sometimes take up residence there) to be recognised? Or that statistically, works of art purchased for national collections in the West still tend to originate in countries that are economically and culturally dominant, like the US, Germany and the UK? Perhaps we simply prefer the myth of global equality to the embarrassment of marginality.

Secondly, and more significantly, we are confronted, now more than ever before, with the question of artistic identity and its own set of myths. To whom exactly do we owe our ideas; who is the father on whose shoulders we sit? It is too easy to fall into the trap of providing ourselves with mythical origins, or imagining traditions and cultural values we never really owned. Yet, beyond the romantic illusions and fallacies of “tradition”, every Maltese artist and author, of course, carries contradictory individual or autobiographical experiences and memories that leave enduring marks on the page or canvas he or she works on. In Fl-Isem tal-Missier (u tal-Iben)2 – In the Name of the Father (and the Son) – Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud weaves the discovery of his father’s war diary into a compelling and peculiar story of a father-son relationship. The father, a sergeant in the King’s Own Malta Regiment and the Royal Malta Artillery, is a blend of strong and weak qualities, local and imported images. He frightens and is simultaneously venerated by his youngest son. He fights the Italian Fascists, yet weeps over his mother’s grave in the opening paragraphs of the book. He tests his son’s maturity with a dirty, Maltese riddle, yet struggles to fill the pages of his diary with broken English (“my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment how to clean the Rifle”). Retrospectively, the gravity of his face reminds his son of Humphrey Bogart, but the little boy in the narrative also pokes fun at this man whose disability forces him to limp badly. He is portrayed as a powerful Phallus, but the last exchange with his son occurs through the blank openings in his skull, at the Addolorata cemetery.

The heroic father-figure is constantly enacted and then subverted by references to physical defects, authoritarian characters in the Maltese political scene, and implicitly, by the writer-son’s weapon that the soldier-father clearly does not possess with any measure of confidence: the written word. The Phallus-father who teaches the unwritten laws of masculinity to the little one but is capable of citing only the laws of Britannia’s barracks in his diary is now written by a “weak” son who judiciously quotes Plath and Cixous as he ransacks his past: a complex relationship that Mifsud ultimately directs toward a possible, self-ironic re-enactment with his own son in the book’s concluding pages.

In the context of a discussion about a sense of belonging in literature or art, it is tempting to interpret In the Name of the Father (and the Son) as some sort of Oedipal metaphor, representative of an artistic parricide carried out by a younger generation of writers or artists who acknowledge a love-hate relationship with their own origins. It is a strong and inevitable temptation: the son outshining his gallant father by becoming a master of the Logos. We must resist such a temptation not only because cultural displacement is never simply a matter of total rejection but also because it reduces the reading of literature to the mere application of a psychoanalytic code, and Mifsud’s writing works very deliberately against such codifications. Written in English and re-contextualised in his son’s literary work in Maltese, the soldier’s diary becomes a form of “minor literature” in Deleuze’s and Guattari’s sense, that is, one “which a minority constructs within a major language”3. Its linguistic failings become its political energy; the father’s limited grasp of the English language is not only his individual limitation, but that of a community faced by colonialism and a war followed by parochial political tensions. The father is, in Deleuze’s and Guattari’s words again, “a dog digging a hole, a rat digging its burrow… finding his own point of underdevelopment, his own patois, his own third world, his own desert”4.

The son’s book similarly digs out a new space at the boundaries of literature, creating a network of fragmentary writings that border on theory (Barthes, Cixous, Lacan, Bordo, Kristeva), confession, archival documentation and multilingual writing (bringing English, Italian, German, French and Latin into a predominantly Maltese text). While the war diary is seemingly only a pretext for something more ambitious, it actually becomes an integral part of a subversion of the literary field in which it is made to partake. If Mifsud’s writing is peripheral, this is not merely a reflection of the geographical smallness that Maltese artists and writers are born into but is an expression of his refusal to let us classify his writing both in geographical terms and in terms of literary genre. The writer’s or artist’s task on the “margins” is neither a simplistic emulation of the father nor the triumphal formation of some new avant-garde that disowns the father. Mifsud’s book is hardly couched in a language of hope, even when it alludes to the birth and infancy of the author’s own son. Its affirmation lies in the way it unsettles certainties and reconfigures the way we come to terms with who we are and those who are no longer.


1. Lyotard, J.-F., (1971) Discours, Figure, Paris: Editions Klincksieck
2. Mifsud, I. (2010) Fl-Isem tal-Missier (u tal-Iben), Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin
3. Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1986) Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, University of Minnesota
    Press, p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 18.

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