by an often forgotten Maltese author
Alex Vella Gregory, The Sunday Times of Malta, May 15, 2011
Juann Mamo (Mark Vella, Ed. Ġrajja Maltija, Klabb Kotba Maltin, 102 pp.
It is curious to see how certain authors are taken up by political circles as ideal role models, and given such titles as ‘National author’, while others are more or less ignored.
This has been the case with Juann Mamo, a Maltese author from the early 20th century whose fame so far has rested on one novel: Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka.
All that is about to change with the publication of Ġrajja Maltija, a series of short stories by Mamo, edited and annotated by Mark Vella. These 19 stories, recently discovered by Vella, are perhaps the most important discovery in Maltese literature in recent years.
They are an invaluable addition not only to the study of Mamo’s work, but also to the study of early 20th century Maltese literature.
To understand Mamo’s writing one has to understand Maltese society at the time. It was a time when the local population was divided into several factions.
On one hand there was the ruling British class, supported by a newly formed middle class that tended to be liberal.
This was countered by the Italianate classes, made up mostly of local aristocracy, the clergy, the judiciary and the medical professions. These tended to be conservative and had never forgiven the British for taking over the jurisdiction of the island.
Struggling underneath all this was the remainder of the population, made up of illiterate and poverty-stricken lower class, constantly at the mercy of the other two factions.
Mamo draws most of his characters from this section of the population. Later generations of socialist propagandists have used Mamo as a champion of the working classes, which is why he fell into disfavour in more conservative literary circles.
However, he does not edify his characters in any way, but instead glories in their ineptitude and ignorance that borders on the sadistic.
Mamo’s mastery lies in the way he mercilessly exposes all his characters to scrutiny. Although his antipathy towards the pro-Italians is apparent, he does not seek to redeem his literary victims in any way.
I use the word ‘victims’ because all his characters end up prey to their own superstitions and misconceptions. Very often they end up ridiculed (Kikinu fil-Ħamrun), injured (Qorti fuq xejn), or dead (Petest laħaq).
Mamo manages to instil in the reader a mixture of fascination and revulsion towards his protagonists. His sense of humour is dark and unforgiving, such as in Wiżu u Ġorġi.
Two starving men are duped into believing that to inaugurate the new church bell in Birkirkara the local population had turned it upside down and cooked soup inside it.
Mamo’s language is harsh, adopting a Maltese vernacular full of corrupted words and idiomatic expressions. He also has a peculiar sentence structure that does not always follow accepted rules of grammar.
All this heightens the roughness of his subject matter, and contrasts sharply with the contrived poetic Maltese of many of his contemporaries.
This edition comes with an extensive and masterly introduction by Mark Vella which is well worth reading as it puts all the stories in context.
Moreover, all the stories are annotated, with historical figures and events explained in detail. There is also an Appendix with three unauthored stories that bear Mamo’s stylistic imprint.
Ġrajja Maltija represents a milestone in Maltese literature both in terms of the content as well as the research involved.
I hope this publication will lead not only to a reappraisal of Mamo as an author but to more scholarly research into Maltese literature in general.