Narrating Malta as Village

Because nations are essentially narrations, there is an intimate relationship between the art of narrating and the concept of the nation. When we investigate the process that has led to the creation of the Maltese nation we become more aware of the way we have constructed ourselves as Maltese and therefore we are in a better position to take stock of our conceptions and misconceptions and to  shape our future. With the possibility of Malta joining the EU closer than ever, talk of national identity is high on the country’s agenda.

Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” It is imagined because its members will never know, meet or even hear of most of their fellow-members, yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion; it is imagined as sovereign because nations want freedom; and it is imagined as a community because the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.

“Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye.” This image of the nation, or narration, writes Homi Bhabha, might seem “impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical,” but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation “emerges as a powerful historical idea in the west. An idea whose cultural compulsion lies in the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force.”

Ethnic Awareness and Traditional Peasant Values

In literature written in Maltese both before and after Independence from Britain in 1964, Malta is often represented as a rural village. An important underlying belief is that the real Malta lies within the traditional rural village as it has been portrayed, and often idealized, by romantic (pre-Independence) Maltese poetry and prose. The post-Independence writers who reacted against the stereotypes about Malta that plagued the local romantic literature targeted the oppressive atmosphere in the small, tightly knit villages that were idealized by their predecessors, but there is still a strong indication that in many cases these reformists believed that the, albeit reformed, rural village is where Malta should be.

Social historian Carmel Cassar traces the romantic view of rural culture back to the eighteenth century and the writings of intellectuals like G.F. Agius De Soldanis (1712-1778) and Mikiel Anton Vassalli (1764-1829). By the middle of the eighteenth century, canon Agius De Soldanis from the sister island of Gozo came to consider peasant culture, with evident nostalgia, as the true culture of the Maltese. Ethnic awareness, equated with traditional peasant values rather than the new urban heterogeneous lifestyle, came to be seen “as a defensive barrier against the threat from outside.” The elimination of the ‘alien’ urban culture ‘purified’ the ‘folk’ category and paved the way for it “to serve as the basis of ethnic consciousness.”

On the other hand, Vassalli, like the Jacobins, laid emphasis on the “ethno-linguistic criterion of nationality as one of the conditions for full citizenship.” He acknowledged the unique character of the Maltese vernacular and believed that “people who are not part of the common past – those who are ‘alien’ – must automatically be placed outside the borders of national culture.” In Vassalli’s “nostalgic concept of a common national past lies hidden the idealized peasant culture associated with Maltese ethnic freedom.”

Cassar argues that the “attribution of ethnic characteristics can be viewed as an act of resistance of the more conservative strata of society to modernization.” The ethnic qualities which most successfully expressed this conservative viewpoint, were mainly those of a peasant culture. “This image transcribes the notion of peasant society as being, through the nature of their activity, extremely suspicious of all changes.”

Malta-as-Village in Maltese Literature

In Frans Sammut’s important novel Samuraj (1975), the village in which most of the action takes place is a metaphor of post-Independence Malta that is trying, and more often than not failing, to come to terms with what Dennis Austin has called the “severity of independence”. The isolated, backward Village is plagued by the bipolar nature of its social make-up and strangled by its overpowering Church. Its “moral” community takes the protagonist’s refusal to toe the line as an affront to its authority, and its aggressive reaction forces him to turn to the painful, but fond memory of his battered mother for comfort, echoing independent Malta’s inability to wean itself away from its colonized past.

The anonymous traditional rural Village is a whole in itself, with its own insularity, its own social and religious organisation and hierarchy, its own politics. According to writer and critic Oliver Friggieri, the ‘Village’ is the whole of Malta, a “metaphorical substitution of the real name.” One of the first indications of the metaphoricity of the Village is its namelessness in a context which is explicity Maltese. The initial capital letter (ir-Raħal, the Village) gives the reader the impression that this is the Maltese village, what Friggieri has called the national Village.

The distinction in the novel between between village and city, which parallels that between Malta and foreign lands, is understandable, because at the time the novel was written it was quite pronounced. Writing in the late 1960s, Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain notes the “marked difference in values, dress, and even speech” between those who live in the great urban agglomeration surrounding Valletta and the Grand Harbour and those who live in the villages.

On the other hand, between the villages of the Maltese Islands Boissevain observes “a remarkable cultural homogeneity”. This is chiefly due to the unifying influence of a strong church in a small relatively isolated island society. The parish church towers over the tightly clustered houses and dominates social relations within the village. The Church “has been for centuries the focal point of power and authority” within the village and the source for moral guidance. But Boissevain also attributes the villages’ cultural homogeneity to their similar cultural values, including language, moral values and factors on which prestige and class are based.

In other post-Independence novels, many protagonists either choose to emigrate or consider leaving the island. In Alfred Sant’s L-Ewwel Weraq tal-Bajtar (1968) (The First Fig-leaves) and in Frans Sammut’s first novel Il-Gaġġa (1971) (The Cage), the invariably male protagonists decide to abandon the asphyxiating atmosphere of the island. In Il-Gaġġa, Fredu Gambin himself describes Malta as a cage in terms which are similar to Samuraj’s mention of hills “surrounding”  the Village. Moreover, the last sentence of Il-Gaġġa is reminiscent of Samwel’s mention of the “open space” beyond the cliffs: “In front of me,” writes Fredu Gambin, “lies the openness of unending space” (p.150); both Samwel and Fredu Gambin long for “open air” and “open space”. In an introductory note to the text of Il-Gaġġa, Frans Sammut points out that the characters in his story are fictitious but the cage is real.

There is a striking resemblance between the anonymous village of Samuraj and the fictitious village of San Rokku in which most of the novel Il-Għar tax-Xitan (1973) (The Devil’s Cave) by J. J. Camilleri is set. In the second paragraph of his novel, Camilleri describes San Rokku as a small village hidden away in a valley surrounded by hills, cut off from the world and very far from the nearest large city. The remoteness of the village is indicative of its insularity and the distance from the nearest large city calls forth the distance between the Maltese Islands and the nearest land mass. The “long road” from the village to the city was “never ending.” To Petriga, the main female character, “the city was the other side of the world”. In Il-Għar tax-Xitan the city is foreign, profoundly different from the village of San Rokku and the return of the (male) protagonist Jumi Ħarr to his native village from the city is really a metaphor of the return to Malta of a Maltese person who has lived abroad and absorbed other ways of thought. The insider has now become an outsider and this makes his challenge to the accepted norms of the village’s closed community more palatable if still unacceptable. While his advantage is that as an outsider he is not expected to behave as an insider, his disadvantage is that his attempts to challenge the world-view and ways of the villagers are perhaps considered irrelevant because insiders do not  think that outsiders can really know or understand what is going on inside.

In Il-Għar tax-Xitan the portrayal of the city is plagued by stereotypes that are reminiscent of Juan Mamo’s caricature of the way illiterate Maltese emigrant villagers view the United States of America in his satirical novel Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka (1930-31) (Grandma Venut’s Children in America). Some of these stereotypes are included intentionally. In Camilleri’s novel, the parish priest, for instance“frequently described the big city as eroded by incredible evils and scandals”. The city was the “model of the world”, one of the three fierce enemies of human beings, the others being the Devil and the body. Jumi’s father Sidor echoes this view when he concludes that the city “ruined” his son, and made him “lose his faith”, while his mother, echoing Dun Iddew’s own convictions, fears the magical spell of the deceptive city. The novelist is certainly aware that these are misconceptions about the city, but he is probably less aware of the superficial way in which he makes Jumi’s girlfriend Petriga view the city as a place where there is little room for values and morals.

Another element of Camilleri’s narrative which was not meant to be a stereotype is the ease with which the unmarried couple settle down to life in the city. The novelist’s unintentional idealization of life in the city is perhaps most evident in his idealization of the people who live in the city. These stereotypes do not help the characters (and the Maltese in general) to understand themselves or others any better and many characters in the post-Independence Maltese novel hide behind these convenient stereotypes to avoid the destabilizing challenges of an honest search for one’s own identity because understanding others is also understanding oneself.

Cultural Diversity and Heterogeneity

The identification of the “true” Malta with a conservative representation of the rural village has excluded certain characteristics of Maltese life that are primarily associated with the vibrant towns. Urban civilization is characterized by cultural diversity and heterogeneity, by the co-existence of various social groups, strata and classes with different cultural practices and modes of life. In the case of Malta, the heavy flow of foreigners and people from the countryside into the new urban areas which began in the early sixteenth century with the arrival of the Knights of St. John that turned Malta into one of the busiest centres of the Mediterranean, “altered the ethnic character of the population,” and slowly created a distinction between urban and peasant mentality. Cassar believes that urban culture did not simply renew or transform earlier cultural practices, but organized them according to fundamentally new principles based on a ‘market economy.’ Obviously city life, independently of class attachments, ethnic identity and other traditional prejudices, was looked upon by the indigenous population as ‘alien,’ right from the very beginning of the Order’s rule.

From the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, the flow of people in and out of Malta reached unprecedented heights and led to the creation of “a cosmopolitan atmosphere that impressed itself on the character of Valletta and helped to enrich the country especially in the more creative activities.”

In the economic field, the city of Valletta introduced modernity to the Maltese Islands with markets that served as a meeting place both for social intercourse and for business transactions. Artistic and cultural influence, information, and news were thus disseminated to the country. Valletta, like any other early modern European capital, was “the power house of cultural change.” Together with the other towns of the Harbour area, it monopolized the economic and administrative resources of the new state. “So strong was the influence of the capital that the rural way of life in all its manifestations became symbolically equated with a lack of cultural accomplishment, a view particularly diffused among the intellectual élites.”

Malta, at the heart of the bustling Mediterranean (to use two other metaphors), cannot be divorced from the Basin in which it is drenched. The Mediterranean is a region of travel and contacts, of social, cultural and economic exchanges and old conflicts; geography and history have made it possible and often necessary for the cultures and the world-views of the peoples that live on the shores of the Mediterranean to influence and allow themselves to be influenced by each other and by the peoples who turned to the region from the outside to trade in goods and ideas or to make war. We have never been as aware as we now are of “how oddly hybrid historical and cultural experiences are, of how they partake of many often contradictory experiences and domains,” how they “cross national boundaries,” and “defy the police action of simple dogma and loud patriotism.” Far from being “unitary or monolithic or autonomous things,” writes Said, “cultures actually assume more ‘foreign’ elements, alterities, differences, than they consciously exclude.”

A rereading of the metaphors that structure the concept of Malta cannot ignore this Mediterranean context: if the nation-as-village or the nation-as-home metaphors, for example, do not do justice to the role of the island as one of the busiest centres of the Mediterranean; and if they do not take account of the inherent hybridity of most historical and cultural experiences, we have to ask why.

Rereading, Rewriting our Hi/story

A community’s decision to represent itself is also a decision to appropriate or reappropriate itself, to claim or reclaim its own hi/story through the liberating act of narration. In the absence of oral narration, literature has to shoulder a great responsibility indeed. Every generation, writes Quasimodo has to face the problem of finding its own language (“linguaggio”); the search for a new language is not only legitimate but indispensable.

This is what the “Cityspaces” artistic project in Valletta and Inizjamed’s “Bliet (u Miti)” project based in Birgu have, in their different ways, set out to do, to reread and eventually to rewrite our national imaginary, our “hi/story”.

August 2002

This article first appeared on the Babelmed website


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