Saturday, 10 October 2009

From Vatican City to Malta

Well, I finished with the Vatican City on 2nd October and have to say my initial thoughts (as per my previous post) were borne out. I won't spoil things for those intending to read this, but it is probably fair to say that this worked - for me - much better as a means of gaining a sense of understanding the working of this tiny city-state, rather than shedding further light on the motives of the killings which form its main focus. With that proviso, I would certainly recommend it.

And so on to Malta...a tiny (but heavily populated) and sun-drenched archipelago in Southern Europe with strong historical links to the UK. I have never visited this place in person, and was very grateful to Margaret Callus (Assistant Librarian, National Library of Malta) who was very helpful in suggesting a suitable work.

The book suggested was 'Family Photos' by the native writer Petra Bianchi. I found this book interesting in that it follows two narratives - one set in 1861 and one in 2005, each involving families who are loosely connected. The purpose of this dual narrative seems to be to highlight the significant differences between these generations, and the sad fact that people in the contemporary age are often oblivious to, and antipathetic to, their own heritage. This is used here as a metaphor for the loss of heritage in Malta as a country - and the contrast between the rustic, communal settings of 1861 Valleta is stark in comparison with the Sliema of the 21st century, in which Malta appears to be in a state of constant flux and redevelopment; its skyline dominated by "towering cranes". This is reflected on a personal level by the character of Helen Manta, the matriarch of the contemporary family who is pressured to leave her family home for a modern apartment, as developers seek to turn her old house into... modern apartments.

As such, this book does give an interesting insight into modern Maltese life, although I feel the author has almost been too successful in highlighting the generational much of the book reads like two entirely different novels (set in 1861 and 2005 respectively), and there is not enough sense of linkage between these two. Furthermore, the plethora of characters who come and go can be hard to keep up with - especially in trying to work out generational linkages - and many of the chapters, especially the contemporary ones, are more isolated vignettes rather than sections that move the narrative along in a conventional sense, and plots and characters are often introduced and then discarded with no progression...

That said, this was probably the intention of the author - to highlight the gulf between contemporary society and its history, which is often sadly taken for granted and disregarded (and this is certainly not just true of Malta!). The strongest illustration of this idea here, are the 'Family Photos' of the title. One is led to expect that the modern day protagonist, Paul Manta - a journalist, will discover and connect with his heritage through these. The fact that this never really happens is the most striking illustration of the book's theme.

What this book did deliver was a sense of Malta as a country in a state of flux, a place of rapid modernisation which - whilst forging its own identity in C21st Europe - is perhaps in danger of losing a sense of shared history among its diverse inhabitants.

All in all, an enjoyable read and an insight not just into modern day Maltese family
life, but also its colonial history (of which I was sadly unaware... another example of how so many of us are sadly disengaged from our historical past).

Next: a trip across the water to Athens, Greece, with a selection of interlinked short stories ("I'd Like" by Amanda Michalopoulou).

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