INTERVIEW | Sunday, 18 November 2007

The junk we deserve

Few would disagree that the people get the government they deserve.
MARIO AZZOPARDI says it’s also true about television, art, literature and culture, but Karl Schembri finds he still has the rage of 40 years ago when he co-founded the Moviment Qawmien Lettarjarju

At 63, Mario Azzopardi has no intentions of retiring from the public sphere. Not only is he religiously committed to his critical weekly newspaper columns attacking anything from Tista’ Tkun Int to the Vatican, from George Bush to Silvio Parnis, but he is also making a comeback to the publishing world with an explosive book of short stories for adolescents, Alicia Titkellem mill-Imwiet, just published by Merlin Library.
His stories treat some of the questions that are taboo on this island not only for his adolescent readership but even among adults, as he skates on the thin ice of sexuality and abuse, the loss of innocence, and fatal drug consumption, among others.
Azzopardi admits it was not easy to strike a balancing act.
“I wanted a realistic style and the choice of register was not always easy, but there is one particular story which dearly tested my perception of vertiginous balance, and it deals with the physical deflowering of an adolescent girl,” he says. “I wrote this particular story five times.”
The idea of writing a book of stories for adolescents came from Chris Gruppetta of Merlin Library, who had asked Azzopardi to write a story for thirteen-year-olds to be included in an anthology for schools.
“I came up with a phantasmagorical tale about an invasion of jellyfish. On reading the story Chris liked it so much that he asked me to write more stuff. In the space of three weeks I gave him eight stories mixing hard hitting social issues with spells of fantasy. It seemed to work and the stories sounded ‘different’ and the book is now on the shelves.”
Perhaps Azzopardi’s last important publication happened more than a decade ago with his Noti Mis-Sanatorju tal-Mistiċi, although in 2003 he had his critical history of theatre in Malta published by PIN and a collection of adaptations of international tales for children published by Merlin last year.
Yet most of his voluminous corpus of poetry and prose-poems remains unpublished except on the internet on the website created and maintained by his son from Australia.
Two years ago, Azzopardi’s latest anthology of poems with the critical annotations of Charles Briffa – who is also the poet’s biographer and long-time critic/collaborator – was about to be published by Midsea Books.
“We thought we had the deal going with Midsea Books. We had discussed the volume of the work and the number of new poems to be included. We had even paid from our pockets for the cover design and we had agreed on the format, but suddenly Midsea had second thoughts and said they are committed with other projects of high priority. Briffa’s work was put on the backburner and we never heard again from the would-be publishers.”
Instead, however, Briffa has come out with a wide-ranging investigation of Azzopardi’s works in literature, theatre and the media in his Travelling Between Shadows launched just last Friday at the Book Fair.
Published by Allied Newspapers, publishers of The Times, the book tracks the prolific poet’s works along the years and puts them in the context of his biography.
“Luckily, Prof. Kenneth Wain from Allied Publishers showed keen interest in the book and in a matter of months it rolled off the press,” Azzopardi says.
“He writes with a knife” was Palestinian poet Walid Nabhan’s apt description of Mario Azzopardi last Friday at the book launch.
“Mario remains rebellious as ever, but he has changed the certainty of the exclamation mark at the end of his verses with the question mark of a poet who has matured,” was Joe Friggieri’s pertinent appraisal of Azzopardi’s life voyage from the Sixties to this day.
I tell Azzopardi he seems to have a bit of a bizarre preference for his outlets: He writes his weekly columns on In-Nazzjon and Il-Mument – both mouthpieces of the establishment; he had Noti mis-Sanatorju published by PIN (same stable) and had just had his biography published by Allied Newspapers – the ultimate bastion of conservatism. Is this a form of perverse flirting with the establishment he denounces or an intelligent Trojan horse through which he subverts it?
“The important thing for me as a writer and a columnist is to have a democratic platform which would not compromise what I believe in,” he replies. “The papers you mention never, ever deleted a word from my contributions and that is crucial to my integrity. I have written in favour of divorce, abortion, about the rights of immigrants, in favour of stem cell research, against golf courses and the rape of the countryside, against Church fundamentalism… and the PN papers never censored my writings. I am diametrically opposed to the notion of having Malta regarded as a satellite of the Vatican and my editors are fully aware of my position, yet my newsprint columns are not tampered with. I like your metaphor about the Trojan horse and I have no qualms about your suggestion of subversion. And if there’s a classic Trojan horse within the Allied newspaper establishment it’s the Leader of the Opposition writing his PR column in The Times.”
Speaking of whom, Azzopardi also has a strange relationship with Alfred Sant. While he admires Sant as a great playwright, it is clear that the two men – both staunch secularists in their own right – hardly see eye to eye.
Sant had accused Azzopardi of being a “double dealer” after an acrimonious fallout in the nineties when he started writing on the Nationalist press, culminating with a bitter public mudslinging attack on the Labour media against the left-wing poet fronted by Evarist Bartolo.
Azzopardi does not mince his words about Sant’s political expediency. Last Friday, he referred to his Times column of about a month ago in which Sant had urged artists and authors to engage themselves.
“Everyone knows what happened to Kenneth Wain when he came out in favour of EU membership,” Azzopardi retorted, referring to the philosophy professor’s vilification by Labour’s then shadow minister for education, Evarist Bartolo.
Yet, it was on Labour’s radio station that Azzopardi used to broadcast his razor-sharp satirical programme Super One Cocktail attacking everything, with an audience that varied from university academics to working class housewives.
“I do not have the physical time to write, produce and present such a programme,” he says about the possibility of a Cocktail revival today. “But since Cocktail came off the airwaves some thirteen years ago, when it targeted social, political, sexual and religious taboos, parody on the media has made inroads, and there have been attempts to continue to demystify politicians. But try touching the institutional Church, for instance and you’re damned. Try cracking a satirical piece about the absurd proposal to have anti-abortion laws entrenched in the Constitution and you’ll find that your quirky smartness will do you in, probably for good. Well, after all, such strictures should not hit us as a great surprise. The leader of the Opposition, who many people forget is himself a very valid playwright, has gone on record saying that the Maltese are not yet mature to have a provocative carnival on the streets.”
Azzopardi’s constant anti-establishment stand did not prevent him from working within the establishment, not only as a teacher but also as consultant to Louis Galea when the latter was still culture minister and the actual author of Malta’s cultural policy.
Yet he is extremely uncomfortable with the educational status quo, and is as always extremely vociferous about the educational system’s glaring shortcomings in instilling critical consciousness and creativity in students.
“I worked in the educational sector for the best of 40 years and I still feel that the education system has a pathetic deficit when it comes to the creative output of our students, from junior school to university. Our system is a depository system, obsessed with recycling static information for examinations. There is no adventurism in our education system, no risk, and education should be about life rehearsals not about mechanical responses. Far from being liberating, our education system is stifling. It is a construct, not a creative force; it imitates knowledge, instead of researching it.”
Azzopardi admits it does feel lonely, being constantly critical even of his peers – artists and intellectuals whom he slams continuously for refusing to engage in the public sphere.
“I think Malta deserves it’s junk realities,” he says. “It deserves its mediocrities and all the monopolies which condition the island to its ‘ejja ħa mmorru’ mentality. At best, we are a plagiarising country and this conditioning is a direct product of a paralysed education system that charts no new territory. We are also infused with massive doses of bigotry and sycophancy. In this sense yes, I feel the weight of a certain moral loneliness.”
Television – one of Azzopardi’s preferred channels of his analysis of popular culture, particularly the public broadcaster, has seen an unwavering decadence getting worse by the minute. Among the latest developments on PBS, we have seen the removal of Tista’ Tkun Int – one of his favourite targets, yet the essence of junk TV remains: Becky, Xarabank, Arani Issa and now even match-making contests and encounters with potential mother-in-laws being broadcast at prime time on the tax-funded station. And things are getting worse as the PBS board of directors is constantly overruling editorial decisions, with Investments Minister Austin Gatt’s blessing since his cannibalistic restructuring drive that has stripped the station to one-third of its workforce.
“The prevailing agenda on PBS seems to have populism as its highest priority,” Azzopardi says. “State television programming is of abysmally low quality, starting from the sing-song, amateurish performance of its newscasters to its pseudo political debates and its manipulating mass entertainment forays. Again, since there is no willingness for a scathing analysis of what goes on the national broadcasting network, and since the academic and intellectual class has been silenced or chooses to remain silent, Malta gets the decadent television streaming it deserves. Issues relating to the board of directors, the board of editors and the Broadcasting Authority have become a pantomime in their own right. Nobody really knows who is pulling the strings or calling the shots but the overall effect is a compulsion towards a national caricature accepted by an incurably simple-minded people. Thinking about local television consumers, I am reminded of what Samuel Butler said about the Erewhonians: they are a meek people, easily led by the nose, and quick to offer up common sense at the shrine of logic.”
Meanwhile while last week we witnessed the death of two bastions of journalism: Enzio Biagi and Norman Mailer, over here, the journalist that made headlines was PBS editor Sylvana Cristina who said that the minister responsible for PBS has “imposed a media blackout on her” – she just can’t even give a comment to the press to defend her own editorial decisions. What does this say about journalistic freedoms here?
“This adds up to the national soap opera and stresses the reality of string pulling. It also indicates the heavy quotient of compromise that state broadcasters have to settle for in order to survive in a country where we are often relishing the illusion of freedom. And I do not talk only of journalistic freedom. Take for instance, theatre: writers still need to submit their texts to the board of censors, a practice which was severely criticised in 2002 by a group of cultural experts from the Council of Europe. Our critique of accepted wisdom can be indeed hilarious, but also very tragic.”
Now, we’re facing a general election in which the ruling party has been in government for almost 20 years, and the Opposition has had the same leader for the last 15 years.
What are the alternatives, now the EU membership issue has been settled? Does he sympathise with the non-voters?
“Again, a country has the political system it merits. I am no crystal gazer, but I still think that the Nationalist Party has the best ideas and the best predictions for a positive economic outcome, in spite of the inherent neo-capitalist emphasis. I agree with the common perception that it was a very serious error on the part of the PN not to introduce a new crop of ministers against the overwhelming expectations of the electorate. I also feel very uncomfortable with the confessional morality assumed by the Nationalist government and I find this attitude medieval and inconsistent with what goes on the European mainland. On the other hand, a technocrat like the leader of the Opposition has shown that he has exceptional resources to resist internal conspiracies but his politics of expedience are too obvious to inspire credibility. I do not sympathise with non-voters and anyway, their refusal to vote would privilege one party or the other by default. Are we screwed up, you ask. Yes, I think we are saddled with hyped-up platitudes that offer very little change to our manic pedantry, but again, isn’t that what we have had coming to us for so long?”
I tell him we’re getting the government we deserve, then, with all the accompanying junk and mediocrity pervading our lives; but believing that and resigning oneself to it may also be a recipe for complacency.
“We are already living in a complacent scenario, but few people would admit this. Nor is there the collective will to change this situation.
“Power mongering is there to stay unless the country finds a new critical route and an active consciousness. I believe in the pressure that intellectuals and artists could exert on the political class if they are to emerge from their state of utter irrelevance. Look at the writers in other countries, for instance: note the confrontational positions taken by the likes of Dario Fo, Arundathi Roy, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and Norman Mailer. Unfortunately, intellectuals and artists in this country have generally not only lost their collective voice, but they have retreated to their individual, self-protecting bolt-holes. I feel they have a responsibility which they fail to reckon with. To my mind, what the country needs direly is the agitating spirit of intellectuals and artists who believe in radical democracy, to penetrate forcefully the public sphere and create social dynamics, even to disturb when necessary.”

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