Review, Ġużè Bonnici, Ħelsien, The Sunday Times (8 December 2019)
The publication of this third edition of Ġużè Bonnici’s novel Ħelsien proposes a long overdue re-evaluation of a work that clearly deserves more attention than it has received since it was first published in 1939. The cover illustration by Julinu, with its tense mixture of sharpness and density, immediately sets the tone.
This new edition by SKS reproduces a rather personal critical appraisal by Ġużè Chetcuti, a friend of the author, that first appeared in the 1985 reprint. It includes some 320 short and unobstrusive footnotes with meanings, an updated biographical note of the author by Shanna Spiteri, and a critical commentary by Maria Simiana, another young researcher who holds a Masters degree in Maltese literature. Her first dissertation focused on two novels by Bonnici, Ħelsien and his rather unorthodox historical novel Lejn ix-Xemx, another work awaiting republication.
Ħelsien (Freedom) was the third novel by Ġużè Bonnici, an author, publisher, medical doctor, and political activist who died of cancer in 1940 at the age of 33. In an interview he gave to Ġużè Aquilina in 1962, 22 years later, Rużar Briffa described Bonnici as the best friend he had ever had. As Shanna Spiteri shows, Bonnici was an extraordinary man who managed to do so much before his untimely death and left an indelible mark on Briffa, Chetcuti and many others who had the good fortune of working closely with him.
Despite the socially engaged ring of the title and the social and political activism of its author, this is not an overwhelmingly political novel. It does score some political points, especially when it refers to “il-Partit il-Qadim” (the Old or Conservative Party), presumably the Nationalist Party. But this is not what the novel is about. Ħelsien is more about the psychology of the protagonists and individual and collective guilt.
Ġużè Bonnici tells the story of a physically weak young man in the rural village of Ħal Rażul, the fife playing shepherd Feliċ, whose attitude towards life becomes increasingly bitter. He clashes with the city dwelling lawyer, Luretu, who comes from the same village of Ħal Rażul, but has turned his back on it. Luretu, a rising star in the political scene, returns to his village as a candidate of the Conservative Party and is welcomed as a hero. But Feliċ clashes with the stylish and prosperous lawyer over his childhood love, the beautiful and ambitious Rożina. There’s not much to write home about in the formula.
What makes this novel noteworthy is Bonnici’s use of language and his foray into psychological drama. The author’s linguistically “purist” approach is out of sync with a 21st century audience, but his mastery of idiomatic Maltese and the art of storytelling is a godsend. Every self-respecting prose writer should read this novel.
Maria Simiana deals at length with Bonnici’s craft in her comment on how he negotiates the literary genres and conventions of his time and creates an identifiable narrative voice. She argues that the novel ends without closure, something that reminds of us both of Ġużè Ellul Mercer’s Leli ta’ Ħaż-Żgħir, which Bonnici himself published in 1938, and of post-Independence Modernist narrative.
The novel also deals with many issues, from the conflict between social classes to that between the country and the city; it deals with honour, ambition, unrequited love, jealously, and failure, because Feliċ is a character study of failed protagonists.
The novel starts off in a light ironic vein but slowly gets darker and murkier. Perhaps it was the novel’s “failure” to separate “right” from “wrong,” its reluctance to condemn some of the “moral” weaknesses of its characters, that led it to be largely ignored by a conservative literary and academic establishment.
With this new edition, Ħelsien is back. And it is here to stay.
Adrian Grima is an associate professor in Maltese literature in the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta