Lifting the Lid on the Vipers’ Pit

Starting from this Friday (6 August), those of you based in Malta can watch a film I wrote at Eden Cinemas in St Julian’s.

This is the first feature film script of mine to be produced, and suffice it to say that I’m excited about how audiences are going to react to our adaptation of Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi (literal translation: ‘The Snakes Are Venomous Again’; our translation, ‘A Vipers’ Pit’) by Alex Vella Gera, a novel whose trajectory I’ve followed from a very early stage back in 2012.

Director-producer Martin Bonnici called me up to ask if I’d be on board with adapting the novel back in late 2015, by which point the book had been established as a landmark of contemporary Maltese literature. This had partly to do with its thrilling core conceit – a group of ultra-Catholic nationalist insurgents plan the assassinaton of firebrand socialist prime minister of Malta, Dom Mintoff, in the 1980s – but also for more formal reasons.

Vella Gera’s novel is written in the bilingual register which reflects how a large part of the Maltese population speak; a linguistic schizophrenia that stands in for the binaries of social class on the island. The middle classes speak English, the working classes speak Maltese. At least, that’s the boilerplate belief, which has of course always been more nuanced on the ground than on paper. Middle-class born Noel Sammut Petri decides to break with that tradition after a move to Brussels, insisting on speaking Maltese in Maltese company.

It may seem like a small detail, but it speaks volumes. Where the English-speaking Maltese are either coded as elites or subject to gentle (and not-so-gentle) ridicule for the most part, Vella Gera chooses to depict this reality honestly, filtering some of this understandable distaste through the now liminal figure of Noel.

It’s one of the many ways in which the book resists an earnest, try-hard attempt to flaunt an idea of Malteseness that can be packaged and sold, and it’s probably the reason why it felt so refreshing to so many. Despite the attention-grabbing Mintoff plot, at its core the story is about the emotional landscape of the people trying to navigate the uncertain morass that is Malta: an infant Republic in its early segment set in the 1980s – following Noel’s father Richard as he’s pushed to serve as triggerman for the Mintoff assassination – and an EU member state at the cusp of regime change in 2012.

Vella Gera himself told me as much while we were conducting an email interview about the book prior to its publication in 20 October, 2012. Here’s a quote that didn’t make the final cut:

“I wanted to steer away from narratives dictated by the political parties. In a way, this book is a direct challenge to that bipolarism. Not that I’m propagating a “third way”, which is really conservatism by another name. However, like Noel, I too am aloof from the tug of war of local politics, so if my book were to be “unofficially boycotted” I think in a way it would be a success because it would underline that aloofness and continued lack of understanding of where I really come from

[…]

“Obviously, I have my political opinions, which to a certain extent continue to validate that aloofness, because I find very little in Maltese politics to rejoice over. I wonder who Noel would vote for. Probably [Green Party] AD, or perhaps he wouldn’t vote at all, or then again, he’d vote Labour just to spite [his property magnate friend] Roger. But I never get into these intricacies, because I find them very dull to deal with […] Personally I tried to steer away from getting too specific about anything except the gut feelings of people, which is what I’ve always felt is missing in most Maltese political fiction. That gut feeling that cannot be brushed aside or censored, or made more palatable with a joke or a witty aside, or some satirical tone.”

Despite its many changes to the source novel, I also sincerely hope that our film adaptation manages to convey a similar commitment to the complex emotional spaces the characters occupy, in favour of safely packaged assumptions, and jingoism by any other name.

Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi (A Vipers’ Pit) will be screening at Eden Cinemas, St Julian’s, from 6 August. True to its bilingual source novel, the film will be in both Maltese and English, andcome with English subtitles. Book your tickets here.

Catching A Break… Or Not

We can’t manage to catch a break in Malta, can we? It’s been at least since last November that some kind of mental stability or continuity — the latter being a repeated slogan in the party leadership campaign that was to crown the November madness — was the norm in both public and private life.

I was actually on a break of sorts when that first crisis hit. High on the freshly released fumes of success generated by our being awarded the inaugural Malta Book Council feature film fund for our feature film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, I decided to go for an early, modest version of a writerly fantasy and booked a ‘writing retreat’ at the sister island of Gozo in off-season.

It was a no-brainer, at least in theory. I chose to stay at the notoriously quiet village of Gharb, with a pipe-shaft view from my typing window and grossly over-pixelated landscape printouts hanging by the bed. So, no distractions there. The breakfasts were also nice and energising — full English, with a dollop of French sweets and Gozitan cheeselets on the side — and having paid in full for room and board meant that I was internally pressured to get cracking on the reams of research and story development that needed to be done.

Sriep Gozo Process

But the trip also coincided with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, so I could forget all about isolation and silence, in the broadest sense of the word. How could I resist checking my phone when the political status quo of the island was being dismantled right before our eyes? Not least when the project itself hardly offered a neat cutoff point: my research dealt with political violence and corruption in 1980s Malta, and if anything was to be salvaged from the distraction it was that the resonances between then and now ensured that our film will be laced with an enduring, if unfortunate, relevance.

With the fallout came the protests, and an unprecedented political crisis culminating in the resignation of then prime minister Joseph Muscat and the election of Robert Abela in his stead, with a reshuffled cabinet following suit. As alluded to above, ‘continuity’ was the watchword, and Abela — to the cynical chuckles of many — quickly declared that ‘normality’ has been restored to the island.

The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic makes short work of precisely that kind of rhetoric. We have seen how it’s served to symbolically unseat the likes of Donald Trump, whose bluff and bluster collapses ‘like a flan in a cupboard’ when faced with a threat both invisible and undeniable. Though I would caution against declaring that ‘the Trump presidency is over‘ so categorically — the orange oaf has survived a record amount of scandals — watching him scramble for some political purchase while playing the same old xenophobic tunes is just farcical at this point.

But it’s not just limited to politicians. The sight of suddenly quarantined celebrity actors deciding to make use of their newly housebound condition to splice together a group singalong of John Lennon’s Imagine — “Imagine there’s no people” is hardly the thing you want to hear while a murderous pandemic continues to spread on a murderous rampage of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable — also points to the tone-deaf nature of another privileged class.

The cluelessness of the global rich is hardly news — Best Picture winner Parasite all but rendered it into an archetype, and these elites are actually nice — but a pandemic has away of making it all come out like a particularly eye-grabbing Lovecraftian bas relief.

So yes, we’re still very much not getting a break right now: not from the bone-headed stupidity of the global hegemony, not from the callousness and stupidity of those at the top. But we’re joined in this worldwide, and while the imposition to enforce ‘social distancing’ certainly lends fuel to the fire of certain xenophobic tendencies informed by the idea of the infectious and corrupting nature of otherness, we’re also getting to see limits of our status quo.

A status quo within which, as a self-employed freelance writer, I am likely doomed to remain on the fringes of, for better or worse.

(Here’s the bit where ask anyone who’s reading this to consider making use of my services as a journalist, content writer or scriptwriter during these trying times, as existing clients start to bail and any prospective ones suddenly be).

Perhaps some would call the largely worldwide self-quarantine a break of some sorts, though of course it’s not that, not by a long stretch. But it’s certainly a break in the aggressive sense, a rupture of the old routines we’re now scrambling to become accustomed to, with varying degrees of success, and each in their own way.

I’ll try to keep chasing the resonances. Even if they’re not all pleasant ones. Because in times like these, some kind of internal coherence is what we need more than anything else.

 

 

 

Lullabies to Paralyse

I didn’t want there to be such a radio silence up here for such a long time. As October got underway, I hit upon the idea of leading up to Halloween with a fun little round-up of mini-reviews of season-appropriate stuff I’ve been reading – and to be fair, I did manage to roll out a first-and-only installment with my review of Kali Wallace’s deliciously autumnal sophomore effort, the Young-Adult-but-don’t-let-that-stop-you novel The Memory Trees.

But then, life happened, as it tends to. The freelancer cup did overrun this month, and I suppose I should be grateful for that; stress and lack of time to update one’s blog and continue pottering away at ‘passion projects’ notwithstanding. The good news is that I did manage to keep up with the reading schedule – I devoured John Langan’s The Fisherman, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, and enjoyed all of them – but apart from brief Facebook missives, that’s all there was to show for it.

(I also owe the great gents who are Neil Willamson and Nathan Carson some reviews for their juicy and memorable takes on various genres, and I promise that’s upcoming very soon). 

It could have simply been a matter of scheduling. But it could also have been down to that other thing. The thing that once again thrust Malta into the international spotlight. The thing that put a lot of the hyper-local controversies, paradoxes and scandals into far sharper relief, now.

Because the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was one of those events you can’t run away from. You can’t shake them off from your mind and get back to your things with a business-as-usual attitude. Because, unlike the many petty grievances (that nonetheless still betray something of a rotten core) which I talked about in a previous blog post, a murder hits a far more direct note than the rote examples of corruption and complacency that gnaw away at us otherwise.

I was of course not alone in reacting to the numbing effect of such an event with, well, a pervasive, deep-seated sense of numbness. And after it had all just about started to subside, then came the reactions in earnest; some knee-jerk, some more considered and others, quite wide-ranging in scope, such as the rapid-fire succession of protest and ‘civil society’ actions, most of which were well-attended enough to possibly break local records, but all of which soon became mired in the kind of controversy that is unavoidable in a country where the partisan divide is so stark as to be almost physically tangible.

But neither am I too comfortable in suggesting that Daphne’s murder made me stop thinking and reading and writing – first of all, that would simply have been false because I have continued to read and write all the while, the only difference being that it’s been happening at a far slower pace than I’d hoped it would, now that the climate has cooled down and I could have, theoretically, begun to power through some work that would make me proud and remind me there’s tons left to do, and tons to live for.

No, I will not inject this event with an unsavoury jolt of facile, narcissistic tragic romance. And much as I strongly believe that the mythological idiom is an underused device in today’s age of bitty, rolling info-nuggets which more often than not, offer stimuli disguised as truth, I don’t think that mythologising Daphne or reducing her murder into some kind of commemorative meme would help to make the best out of a terrible situation.

The effect is disorienting. Before the murder, I had my issues with Malta, but I still felt as though I had the tool to process them and make something drinkable out of what are still essentially rancid lemons. Now, that suspect juice produces only poison, and I’m not sure what to do with it.

*

Of course, it all changes on a day-to-day basis. One mantra that I’m trying to maintain is one that’s similar to “Don’t let the terrorists win” – which is facile and shallow in its own way, but it can be the kind of ‘fake it till you make it’ device to get some coherence back up in your brain.

I intend to not let this lull continue, and will be back with a quick report of some of the stuff I’ve written for ‘day-job’ purposes, and some ideas I’ve had swirling around regarding books, authors, film and TV. Because what else can you do?

(Featured image: Ruth Borg in the upcoming, Malta-shot ‘Bahar Zmien’ — Of Land and Sea, directed by Peter Sant. Photo by Michael Galea)