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GUEST POST: Forget The Controversy, The European Prize For Literature Celebrates Maltese Talent

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After the fog of war and the haze of controversy, the only thing left, fortunately, is to celebrate. On 18th May, we’ll discover the Maltese winner for this year’s European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL).

Even though this year’s edition was shrouded by the bickering ignited by Alfred Sant’s protest to the European Parliament for the elimination of an author from the Partit Laburista’s publishing stables, one can draw on the positives of a few days of Maltese literature featuring in the news and also on the wider political agenda. Not books for the sake of them, but stories about telling stories that matter, and a realisation that literature is truly political.

The many ironies of this brief controversy, in fact, dealt with the elimination of Aleks Farrugia’s Għall-Glorija tal-Patrija, winner of last year’s National Book Prize short story category, and published by Sensiela Klabb Soċjalista. Though not a written rule or regulation, the consortium organising the EUPL, composed of stakeholders from 41 countries in Europe and North Africa, has an implicit principle that recommends the disqualification of publishers and authors with a direct association to political parties.

The consortium might have some answering to do as to how this principle might have confused the Maltese jury, but it seems to make sense in guaranteeing a minimum level playing field in 41 states that do not all have the same standards of democracy. Thus, far from prohibiting literature from being political, it seeks to prevent the undue influence of the direct political ownership of literature. Parallels were drawn by Chris Peregrin with the broadcasting situation in Malta: whilst it’s not my role to discuss this, it might serve as an example that brings to the fore the European perspective on freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, a good book such as Aleks Farrugia’s had to be disqualified. One could also surmise that the Maltese jury, headed by the Arts Council, could have done a better job in defending it, and justifying the fact that Malta does have a tradition of political party publishers who, though dishing out propaganda as their necessary bread and butter, have also contributed immensely to the publishing and literary scene, with SKS’ catalogue being witness to that. But we should let bygones be bygones, and discuss the future of the Maltese book, rather than succumb to poisoning by partisanship on such a matter.

Having actively followed and worked on EUPL promotion since Malta was included, I was surprised at the leak from the usual hallowed secrecy of the jury. Previous editions were always a lovely surprise when learning who had clinched it for Malta. In this case, the silver lining was that we got to know who all the nominated candidates were, and, once again, the irony, what a political bunch! The least political, Giole Galea’s In-Nar Għandu Isem (Horizons), seems to also have been disqualified on a mere technicality (but not defended by anyone, but that’s by the by, now), but is a veritable spiritual and mystical tour de force by the ex-hermit priest, who burst onto the mainstream scene recently with Tħabbat Xtaqtek.

Farrugia’s elimination is regrettable: his short story anthology is a clever revisitation of the main moments of Malta’s historical past. Witty and irreverent, it has a superb socio-historical analysis which rebuts the received national myths of yore and is written with an intelligent eye towards Maltese literary tradition but also the new idiom associated with historical fiction and its tributaries.

Clare Azzopardi’s Castillo was also in the running, once again eliminated due to Azzopardi not being able to qualify as an ‘emerging’ writer. Castillo is no stranger to controversy, having been the strong favourite for the novel category of the 2019 National Book Prize, which ended polemically not being awarded. An intelligent investigation of yet another aspect of the turbulent Eighties, Castillo revolves around the figure of Mintoff and all that has been left unsaid about these dark years in Malta’s constitutional development. Not a political essay of any sort, but a skilful and poetic rendering of personal stories enveloped in mysteries that verge on the surreal and supernatural within the hard edges of the milieu in which the story happens.

Finally, the shortlisted, truly emerging writers. Joe Pace, the writer who surfaced unlikely in his middle age, after a notable acting career, presents Papa Aħmed (Merlin), most probably the bane of the Maltese right-wing: a Maltese pope who chooses Aħmed as his official name, and his thrilling adventures during a Papla visit, but also a spiritual voyage, in the modern-day Holy Land. If that’s not topical enough for you, Lara Calleja’s Kissirtu Kullimkien (Merlin, too) will surely tickle your fancy. The name says it all in this short story collection inspired by the wanton destruction and dismemberment of Malta’s urban and rural fabric by unbridled construction.

The European Prize for Literature is also a much-needed economic boost for the book industry, in Malta and in Europe, especially after the knocks taken by the pandemic. The first-ever winners of the prize, Pierre Mejlak and Immanuel Mifsud, have been translated in nearly 20 languages, with Immanuel Mifsud even published by the French giant Gallimard, probably the greatest scoop in Maltese publishing history. Walid Nabhan is edging closer to a UK contract for L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji and, at the time of writing and with the winner still unknown, Merlin has already got four publishing and translation offers from abroad for the shortlisted books.

I’d rather see the EUPL as another demonstration of the European Way of Life: the effort to bring cultures together, even through books, multilingualism and translation, from the Atlantic to the Caucasus, and even beyond. And, on the local level, I view it as a prize that ultimately celebrates Maltese talent, while at the same time providing an immediate springboard for it to leap beyond our shores. 

This has been a great edition after the dust has settled down. It showed us five great books, which I invite you to savour. It has exposed the vibrancy of our literary and intellectual community, especially young up and coming authors, with something new and urgent to say about the society we live in, here and now. Give me a controversy like this, any day: here’s to more books flying off the shelves, more authors and translators plying their trade, more reading and telling of the stories that really matter.

Mark Vella is the Language Officer at the European Commission Representation in Malta. He is part of the Directorate-General for Translation and handles the promotion in Malta of the European Prize for Literature.

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