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This Week • 22 May 2005

A poet’s voyage

Immanuel Mifsud talks to Matthew Vella about his latest publication ‘KM’, a chronicle of the poet’s travels in eastern and central Europe

When you are not writing, what occupies your time mostly?
Well, partly because my profession demands it, and partly because it is something I like doing, I spend many hours reading. Reading helps me to write and so I have to do it anyhow. I also watch a lot of television, but hardly ever Maltese TV as it lacks quality and the will and know-how to respect viewers. It’s too trashy. And I also watch a lot of films but I have a very particular choice. Usually the films I like watching are either aired at the little hours (stuff shown on Fuori Orario, for example) or I have to hire from DVD shops or order over the net.

Your work has been published abroad and even translated…
Joining the European Union has given me and others wider access to the foreign literary field, in the sense that I was fortunate enough to be invited to readings and festivals abroad, mainly in Europe. Regardless of what many might think many Europeans are interested in our literature and also in our language. Sometimes I think they are even more interested than we are. This also entails a certain responsibility in the sense that many countries I’ve been invited to for these festivals had never heard of Maltese literature and never heard the Maltese language spoken or read.
I had two electrifying experiences in Mallorca and Slovenia where I read to some 800-strong audiences. These were events which a Maltese writer cannot undergo here. So experiences such as these beget mixed feelings: on the one hand you feel glad to be facing such a big audience – and I have to say it can get also quite emotional to read in your own language to large audiences who are interested enough to listen and appreciate – but on the other hand, especially once you are back home, you can feel quite disappointed and also disillusioned that here the interest is very, very minimal. I can’t really comprehend why there is such a big difference between these countries and ours. Is it our education system which does not help our students and citizens to appreciate? Or is it a more complex phenomenon? I really don’t know the answer but this has started to intrigue me a lot as of late. Mallorca, to take one example, is a tiny island like Malta and unlike Malta it is not a nation, and yet the island is bubbling with artistic activity of very high standards. I have also been blessed by the very good fortune of knowing Maria Grech Ganado who very lovingly accepts to translate my work and that of others of my generation.

What is your new book about?
The book launched last Thursday, published by Klabb Kotba Maltin, is a collection of travel poems. I think it is a first in Maltese literature. Travel is usually a very important and fruitful source of inspiration. ‘KM’, as the book is titled, records the kilometres I travelled through ten different European countries, mainly ex-communist ones, during the past few years. Some of the poems are personal documents, but others are my reactions to the history, to the recent history of these countries. Since I was very young I had developed this love for Eastern and Central Europe and this part of the Continent does have something which attracts me in mysterious ways. Before I had the opportunity to travel to these countries I had indulged myself in reading the most prominent writers the Eastern bloc produced, like Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout, Ivo Andric, Ivan Mandy, Wislawa Szymborska, Tadeusz Rozewicz and many others, not the mention to classics like Kafka, Akhmatova and others. Travelling to the ex-Communist countries was more of a pilgrimage, a journey through the political history of the twentieth century that I had previously seen in monochrome images. When I travelled to these countries I made it a point to visit concentration camps in Poland, namely Majdanek and Auschwitz and Terezin in Czech Republic. I have also been to Sarajevo which at that time was still striving hard to wake from the nightmare of the Yugoslav bloody disintegration, as was the case of Croatia. These journeys left a deep mark and the experiences and impressions I recorded can be found in this book.
How has writing about travels been different from your usual work?
There is a central ethical question I had to face while writing this book which I did not need to answer in my previous ones: how possible or correct is it that I comment on the history of the ‘other’? For example, I write about this Slovak lady who lived in Prague when the Soviets invaded the country in 1968. I was not there obviously and even if I had, Czechoslovakia was not my country. Furthermore I have never experienced an invasion, let alone a military occupation by a country which was supposed to be an ally. Likewise, I write about this worker living in the Communist city of Nowa Huta, just outside Krakow, and again I don’t know how correct that is since I have never lived under a communist regime and never resided in a flat on the twentieth floor of a concrete block. So I wonder how legitimate it is for me to try to write about these experiences which I have not lived. You have to keep in mind that this is not a fiction book. I realised how uncomfortable this dilemma is when I found myself reading my poems about Poland to a Polish audience and again when I read about the demise of Czechoslovakia to a Slovak audience in Bratislava. I keep asking myself not if my impressions are anywhere near the truth, since the truth does not exist, but if I have any right in the first place to write down these impressions.

What is the Malta you characterise in your writings and who are its characters?
Allow me to talk about another forthcoming book. Klabb Kotba Maltin will be publishing my next collection of short stories, titled ‘Kimika’ soon. That book is very different from ‘km’, mostly because it centres on Malta as I see it today. It is a scrutinous peep at private moments of a number of very different characters – some very private moments I would say. Sexual abuse of minors features in more than one story, substance abuse, murder and other criminal acts. ‘Kimika’ is not the book I enjoyed writing most because it gives a grim portraiture of Maltese contemporary life. There are themes which so far have not featured in Maltese fiction. I had no intention to shock but it seems that the book is quite disturbing, so much so that the publishers that had originally decided to put the book in print had second thoughts just days before it had to be out for sale. Now thanks to Klabb Kotba Maltin, the book will hit the bookstores this summer. Despite the acerbity of some of the stories in that collection there is still room for humour and satire, particularly aimed at the media. Incidentally, you, Matthew, and your photographer Pippa Zammit Cutajar feature in one of the ‘lighter’ stories which has also been translated and published in a collection of European stories published by the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. So you must buy the book and read it when it’s out!

You have been the publisher of most of your books, until recently - do you think you have managed to climb into mainstream recognition now?
I forked out the money for the first five books I wrote. Then in 2002 Minima Publishers published ‘Sara Sue Sammut’ which had won the acclaim of many readers and even the national literary award for that year. Sadly, Minima have since wrapped up the venture. Thanks to them people like Guze Stagno, Karl Schembri and myself were made known and attracted a sizable readership. In their short business life Minima managed to break new grounds and introduced a new concept in Maltese publishing. As for the present and the future, Klabb Kotba Maltin has shown very keen interest in my books and by this summer they will have published three books of mine, so I can consider myself lucky. I have to say also that being published by a prestigious firm such as KKM is also an honour. So, you can say yes that I have managed to win some recognition now, but I’m not sure if that is a positive thing altogether.

Your future plans?
So, I talked about ‘Kimika’ quite at length. In June the Irish publishing house Southword is publishing another collection of poems ‘Confidential Reports’, translated by Adrian Grima and Irish poet Maurice Riordan. I do regret that these poems will be published in their English version before the original, but life has its strange ways.

Any good young writers around?
Oh yes! They are waiting for the right time to have their work published, but you should have a look at Inizjamed’s recent publication Ktieb ghall-hruq. I think the future of Maltese literature is bright.

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