David Friggieri | Sunday, 26 July 2009
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That worrying 54%

In a press release dated 30 June, the Malta Library and Information Association asked why Renzo Piano’s announcement that a public library would feature in his plans for the Parliament building appeared to have been overruled a few days later when the government stated that the allotted space would house a Museum of Maltese History and Political Development. On 23 July, The Times reported the Investments Ministry’s take on things: “The idea (to house a public library) was subsequently dropped because the Parliament building was rearranged and available free space proved insufficient for the purpose”.
But surely that begs the question why the designs were “rearranged” in the first place. Let’s face it, if the government really supported the library idea you can bet your bottom euro that Piano would have found the space for it. All the more so when the architect himself used these words to describe the idea: “I want people to enjoy going there. We want to put on the ground floor of the Parliament a function that is public…I think we have to put there a dignified, noble activity. We are thinking about a library.”
I’d say that we can safely assume that the government wasn’t particularly turned on by the library option. It would be interesting to know the reasons why.


The Maltese public’s relationship with books is a real dilemma. A 2008 Eurobarometer survey showed that more than half the Maltese population – 54% – said that they had not read one book in the preceding 12 months, while 75% of the respondents said they never visited a public library during that period.
These are seriously worrying statistics when one considers that the really important information will only emerge when people are asked what they read and not whether they read anything at all.
Are the authorities concerned about these statistics? Are there any plans to find out why the Maltese don’t read? We could be in for some interesting surprises. Perhaps the Maltese are too overworked with all the blessed overtime they’re so keen to maintain. Perhaps we’re just a pragmatic people who focus on bread and butter issues: getting on with the job, buying a house and feeding the kids. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the weather. I have often wondered whether there might be some crazy correlation between our miserable reading habits and the fact that we often rank tops in those intriguing happiness surveys. Might it be the ultimate proof that ignorance really is bliss?
After all, books aren’t the pure, saintly objects that they are often made out to be. Let’s not forget that the best books often corrode certainty, challenge the status quo and undermine our most basic assumptions about ourselves and the people who surround us.


A few weeks ago, I bumped into Guze Stagno in front of Café Belga. The bald author was holding a copy of Alfred Sant’s new novel L-Ghalqa tal-Iskarjota which triggered off a conversation about Maltese literature. Guze wanted to know why no Maltese writer has ever made a hit abroad when other small countries (Ireland, Denmark, Iceland and Lebanon to name a few) have given the world best sellers and Nobel Prize winners. Does the language keep us somehow caged? Would a Maltese author who chooses to write in English stand a better chance of being noticed? Does the dearth of translation possibilities play a role?
We might be tempted to conclude that a country whose people don’t seem to venerate reading can hardly be expected to produce world-class literature. But that argument isn’t convincing. My hunch is that it has nothing to do with language and everything to do with our cultural ‘loneliness’. The essential difference, I think, between an Icelandic author and a Maltese one is that the former taps into his Scandinavian roots, idiosyncrasies and traditions – in other words something larger and wider than his immediate environment which is clearly identifiable by a wider audience. Indeed, novels written by Icelandic authors have a distinctly Scandinavian feel about them which they share with their Danish and Norwegian counterparts. A Lebanese author’s novel may be about life on the streets of Beirut but his captive audience is likely to be anybody interested in the Middle East or the wider Arab world.
In many ways, I feel that Malta – that includes our worries, behavioural patterns and quirks – really is a world apart and I’m not convinced that the recent attempt to place our authors in a Mediterranean context does much to alter this reality. Sant’s latest novel, an entertaining dissection of Maltese contemporary society through the Xarabank prism, is another case in point. Who, outside the confines of Maltese society, would understand this novel?


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