Malta Today | Wednesday 23 October 2013 – 12:44
This Saturday, the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta will be hosting a wide-ranging conference on Malta’s original literary ‘enfant terrible’ – Juann Mamo. Ahead of the conference – taking place at the old University in Valletta – we speak to the conference’s organiser, the lecturer and poet Adrian Grima, about why Juann Mamo’s gritty, honest snapshots of Maltese life still resonate.
Juann Mamo’s passport from 1921. Photo: Adrian Grima.
What makes Mamo such an enduring Maltese literary figure?
What makes Mamo such a captivating figure is his audacity. For over 50 years he was practically ignored by the literary and critical establishment. And then, in the same year, 1984, Oliver Friggieri wrote a book about him and his work, and SKS published the first edition of his novel Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka in book form. But it is only in very recent years that academic work on Mamo has gathered pace.
Do you think that he plays a unique part in the literary canon?
I’m not sure we have a canon… And even if we did, I’m not sure Mamo would fit into it very nicely. That’s what makes him so attractive, so contemporary, if you wish, to audiences today.
And then there’s the grand narrative of Maltese emigration that has been almost completely ignored by our literature in Maltese. Mamo’s novel is only the beginning. Why haven’t we told the stories of hundreds of thousands of Maltese migrants from the beginning of the 19th century till today?
Guze Stagno’s most recent novel appears to channel Juann Mamo’s work (Ulied in-Nanna Venut in particular) – would you say that there’s something inherently ‘contemporary’ to the satirical thrust of Mamo’s work?
Mamo’s narrator constantly reflects on the act of narration, of how you’re meant to write a novel. He does it in a very entertaining and ironical way, shooting his way through the literary establishment of the day and taking no prisoners. That’s why he likes Cervantes and Don Quixote so much.
In 1986, Mario Cassar declared in his dissertation that Mamo’s novel had no parents and no offspring (“rumanz bla preċedenti u bla suċċessuri“). Twenty-seven years later, things haven’t changed. Maltese literature has gone through a major renaissance with the cosmopolitan generation of the late 20th and early 21st century. But Mamo’s irreverence and his bold narrative technique – apart from the circumstances in which he wrote – make his work unique. It’s not the kind of work you would want to imitate… where can that take you?
The conference: how did you manage to amass such a varied selection of speakers? What do you think it says about Mamo’s reputation, and the thematic, social and aesthetic legacy his works have left behind?
I think it’s Mamo’s eclecticism that makes him so attractive to people from different backgrounds. He has a lot to say to people with different interests and, most important of all, he says it with the deftness of a shrewd storyteller who is fully aware of the narrative strategies he has at his disposal. And makes the most of them. He tries to give the impression that he’s telling you a very simple story. And that you’re very much in control of what you’re reading. But you also have that nagging feeling that things are not quite what they seem. And you would be right. Because the cheeky, self-conscious narrator of Mamo’s novel takes you places you’ve never been.