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Interview | Sunday, 30 November 2008

The flower that doesn’t wilt

Oliver Friggieri may be an intellectual of yesteryear, but his contemporary writings still manage to influence the forma mentis of modern society. He discusses his recently published autobiography with DAVID DARMANIN

On a one-to-one front, professor, writer and poet Oliver Friggieri could fit the stereotype for the intellectual in an oddball 1960s movie, minus beard, smoking pipe and perhaps a membership with the communist party.
But the oak-toned office, chockfull of books with documents stacked up to the ceiling is there, and with his streak of eccentricity, it’s what you expect of Friggieri, the highly sensitive and deeply passionate poet who penned “Jekk”, etched across all bus shelters in their glass frames.
Soft-spoken but a fast talker, Friggieri’s thoughts race with the sound of his voice. Between every question and answer, he allows himself a short pause of reflection. As we talk about pop literature, Guze Stagno’s name is dropped and the author’s choice of language and gratuitous use of expletives is brought up. The deeply religious Friggieri is however, neither naïve nor easily susceptible to scandal.
“Pop literature is trendy and there is space for it in our country. Literature can reach more people this way... I think the genre is what it is, and one should accept the product as it is presented. It is pop literature at the end of the day, its name implies the style. If this genre exists in other cultures I can’t see why it does not exist in Malta.”
The number of young and new writers having a go at publishing their work has increased, even if slightly. But have readers increased proportionately? Has the quality of work improved in real terms?
“Much progress has been made as the written word is becoming more and more favoured,” he said.
“Awareness has grown and a good number of books are being published, most of which of good quality. As a country, we have also become more sensible. There is a lot of literary activity happening, and this is more noticeable because of our smallness – everything is concentrated here. Look at the number of newspapers published and compare it to the size of our population – you will see that we print a lot, going to show that the written word is important here in Malta. This is one of the advantages derived from being small.”
Literature may be evolving, but can the same thing be said about language?
“While we have made progress in the cultural and media fields, I think we are slowly losing our eloquence. We are also losing our Catholic tradition along with our diction. I dare say, we are losing our Mediterranean culture. That said, I feel the need of sharing something I’ve learnt in the 41 years I have been teaching. What we lost in our generation, we will regain in the younger generation. There is an evident revival among the current generation, and I believe in it wholeheartedly.
“We are now seeing a renewed interest in religion, in Maltese studies, in history, folklore, environment and also in Mediterranean studies. There is a new level of awareness on these issues.”
There has been significant effort in reviving the Maltese language. After the 1930s struggle in officialising the language, in 2004 Maltese has made it as an official European language. This should make us proud. Or does it? A section of the population is still embarrassed to speak Maltese.
“Malta has a strong colonial tradition,” he says. “You cannot expect old traditions to vanish so quickly. As long as bilingualism doesn’t damage any of the two languages, this may be our only path, because we are small. Our challenge is to not mix the two languages in a way that one destroys the other, and I fear that this is what is happening. On the other hand, it is a miracle that our language exists. It is a miracle that our country exists in the first place.”
Published earlier this week, Fjuri li ma jinxfux is a collection of Friggieri’s memoires, an autobiography recounting how Malta’s social, physical and political landscape changed over the past 50 years or so. The title, reminiscent of his 1980s satire Fil-Parlament ma jikbrux fjuri, is inspired by the common wild flower semperviva (always alive).
“I enjoy using flowers as a metaphor. If I had to paint God’s smile, it would be depicted as a flower. Flowers hold such beauty within. Besides, I had made a promise to myself to keep my writing understandable and humble. The language I choose to use is one my late mother would have understood when reading. She was a very humble woman, and she loves the semperviva. The flower remains in my memories as a child.”
Friggieri is clearly very nostalgic about his childhood, and one wonders whether that is the only reason why he felt the need to start writing an autobiography.
“I started writing it in 1995, at a time when I started reminding myself about my own experiences. I recounted the changing times as I wrote – starting from the 1950s and 60s. I tried depicting environment of Valletta and the Grand Harbour of those days. When Malta was a British colony, this area was very colourful – and I could experience this at first hand since I grew up in Floriana. Those were truly colourful days, and readers who lived through the same experiences will very probably reminisce those days while going through the text.”
A member of the society for Catholic doctrine, the MUSEUM, Friggieri actually spent a part of his youth preparing himself for priesthood. His memoires delve into the conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Labour Party, coinciding with the time he was experiencing a peak in his Catholic activism. “I remember former Prime Minister George Borg Olivier vividly, as I have clear memories of all leading politicians. I have fond memories of Alfred Sant too, who is my age. In my work, I tried depicting the beauty of these political figures.”
When, in the 1980s, Friggieri published Fil-parlament ma jikbrux fjuri, former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff reacted to the satire featured in Friggieri’s work in a damning speech in parliament. “Whoever has nothing to fill up his time with, writes a book,” Mintoff had said, referring to the author, who admits being deeply offended by the remark.
“I got to know Mintoff after that episode, and he struck me as being a very interesting person,” Friggieri said.
In Fjuri li ma jinxfux, Friggieri writes about Malta’s darker years, interpreting them as “a worrisome phase the country has had to go through.”
“In the 1980s, Malta underwent a historical clash comparable to civil wars happening in ex-British and French colonies, but to a lesser extent. Malta was wise enough though, because common sense prevailed. I call this the Santa Marija predicament. Culturally, when we hit rock bottom, we tend to see the light. This happened with the awful incidents claiming the lives of Raymond Caruana and Karin Grech. Since then, we saw the major parties undergo a period of maturity. I compare the 1980s to the Napoleonic years. Mintoff wanted to bring about change in the same way Napoleon did. Mintoff however, was angry. He instilled change roughly and quickly and, reacting very much in the same way they did with the French, the Maltese did not accept the manner with which change was being imposed,” he explained.
Friggieri is a fond admirer of Eddie Fenech Adami, who considered his election as the Nationalist Party leader in 1977 as a welcome change.
“Eddie Fenech Adami instilled a culture of calm as he found the right balance. The situation was not calm at all though, on either side. Borg Olivier was never angry, while Mintoff was never calm. Fenech Adami was in between the two. He never cried too much, but was never too calm either. His balance was instrumental in helping Malta evolve to where it is now. He has managed to build a new face to the party with the compromise of instilling pride in the history of PN. By 1971, the PN was tired, and Fenech Adami later gave it a new sense. He turned it into a progressive party from a traditionalist one.”
He cannot talk with the same admiration for Mintoff though. “I don’t think Mintoff managed to express his anger enough as a minister in the 1950s. So it all came out in 1971. Mintoff was capable of working in a nervous environment, and the environment was nervous indeed. I lived through the politico-religious situation when I was a MUSEUM member and a seminarian. I saw it all from a religious point of view. It was a world without TV – unimaginable nowadays.”
The author describes life inside the seminary as very intense. He is grateful for the teachings he was bestowed upon, particularly classic Greek and Latin. “There was a sense of ridicule and a sense of seriousness at the same time at the seminary. Otherwise, it was a life of prayer and study. Fjuri li ma jinxfux is a tribute to all those passing through an experience at the seminary – those who learnt to live on very little.”
While Friggieri is certainly no historian, as a writer he chronicles his experiences as the face of Malta changed. But does the intellectual see the role of a thinker being in demand nowadays?
“I think this is the post-intellectual époque,” he says frankly. “This is the era of experts. But those intellectuals who are still left can certainly contribute when expressing their thoughts. The intellectual must predict, and must have the skill of foresight. This may only be achieved by deep reflection and extensive reading. An author must have a continuous social role to sensibilise the political class. The author must also be the voice of those who cannot articulate their thoughts in writing. I wrote Fjuri li ma jinxfux in a way that readers feel they wrote it themselves.”
Friggieri’s presence today has certainly took a downturn from the prolific standing he enjoyed back in the 1980s, before retreating quietly some time in the 1990s. It transpires he was busy trying to kick the smoking habit.
“First of all I was very busy translating my work and publishing abroad,” he says (Friggieri also writes in Italian and English). “But those were the years when I had willed myself to stop smoking. I could not imagine myself not smoking as I wrote, so for a moment I had a wish to stop writing. I was obviously kidding myself. A bell can’t not ring, a dog can’t not bark.”


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The flower that doesn’t wilt

Oliver Friggieri may be an intellectual of yesteryear, but his contemporary writings still manage to influence the forma mentis of modern society. He discusses his recently published autobiography with DAVID DARMANIN>>



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