‘I, too, left the island for similar reasons’

Frans Sammut’s Il-Gaġġa is John P. Portelli’s favourite book by a Maltese author.
Right: John P. Portelli. Photo: Olenka Kontsovenko

John P. Portelli is a poet, author, and professor emeritus OISE at the University of Toronto, where he is mostly based. Hailing from Dingli, his contributions to Maltese literature include the novel Everyone but Fajza, published by Horizons in 2018. Here, he explains why Frans Sammut’s Il-Gaġġa, published by Klabb Kotba Maltin in 1971, struck him so much.   

My favourite book by another Maltese author: Il-Gaġġa by Frans Sammut.

It’s about: Il-Gaġġa was the first book in the ‘book every month’ series that was launched by Klabb Kotba Maltin in 1971. It is usually described as a psychological novel wherein the main character, Fredu, narrates his life story, particularly in relation to his girlfriends, his family, and Malta. Disgusted by traditionalism in Malta, as well as the lack of success in his relationships, Fredu leaves the island.

The thing that most fascinates me about it is: I read the novel as a first year university student of philosophy and Maltese. There are several aspects that struck me as an 18-year old who had already published essays and some poetry. First, the introspective character of the protagonist. Second, the explicit and realistic descriptions (both internal and external) and yet fast flowing style. Third, the struggles that the main character experienced, which were similar to how I felt about the traditionalism in Malta. Shortly after I graduated, I too left the island for similar reasons. I was so impressed by the novel that I had written an anlytical essay about it arguing that it represented a critical-realist novel written from a dialectical philosophical stance. I later presented the essay on a panel about the novel, which was held at the University some time in the spring of 1973. 

My favourite quote from it is: The opening sentence:  Jiena jien.

If you could ask the author anything about it, what would it be? Does Fredu represent you?

It’s helped shape my writing/thinking because: Although my primary literary focus is on poetry, I have also written some prose (besides my many academic publications, I authored two collections of short stories, and a novel). I cannot directly attribute my style to Frans Sammut’s style in this novel, however, the dialectical nature of my writing may (subconsicously) be influenced by it!

I’m currently working on: I have recently published two poetry collections. First is a collection of poems translated from some of my work in Maltese, entitled Here Was. This was sponsored by Domain Group, Malta, and co-published by Horizons in Malta and Word and Deed Publishers in Canada. The collection has already been translated and published in Romanian by Rocart Publishers. Shortly, it will also be available in Arabic published by Al-Firdous Publishing House in Tunisia. Also, by the end of this year xyz will publish a translation of 60 poems of mine translated into Farsi, with the title Exiled Words.

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