Author Anton Sammut Interviewed

Alte Vestiga is a practical example for those who believe that before attempting to write a book, it is of the utmost
importance that the writer is first of all an avid reader.

The novel by Anton Sammut creates an enormous gulf between itself and the other popular contemporary Maltese books; some of the latter have even put aside all sense of the aesthetic while eschewing cheap, mediocre and sensationalist literature. The novel by Anton Sammut is an apposite answer to these other novels, a sensible alternative for those who want to distance themselves from the many mediocre productions which elicit no intellectual stimulus.

Q. Alte Vestiga is a ‘novel’ of almost 500 pages. But in it are narrated the troubles and conflicts both external and internal of the universal person and it is not tied to a particular place or time. What do you say to this? In this light, could Alte Vestiga have been more concise or is it in fact a summary of all that which you wished to say?

A. Alte Vestiga (I prefer to refer to my book by name rather than as ‘the novel’) was about a thousand pages in length and there was a lot more detail in it than there is now in the book. It is true, the work treats about the eternal position of Man, and such truths are not always comfortable for humanity’s tastes.

As a matter of fact that was the reason why I chose to write them in the form of a ‘novel’ rather than in a dialectical form so I would not be too personal and
direct. As you can see, almost every human condition is discussed and as some readers told me (after a year had passed since they had read the book) it is more a matter of time and experience before such a reader comes to understand that which might not necessarily agree with while he or she is reading.

Some have told me that Alte Vestiga gives you back as much as you wish to take and the deeper you delve, the deeper it becomes. One particular reader also told me that with Alte Vestiga it is important not to stop reading in arrogance or disdain and not to take the book personally and declare war upon it as otherwise it would be sure to hurt you back. On the other hand, if in some themes I had been more concise I do not think I would have been of any value to the reader, but I think that if such a reader were to do some serous research would not find it difficult to confirm what I wrote. However I felt that such steps should be taken by the reader and not by me, the better to respect the moral principles of that

Q. At the end of the novel Teo shows his determination to write a book. It is also said that this book will be misinterpreted according to the needs and indifference of the reader. Is Teo, Anton Sammut in this particular case? According to Sammut, is any interpretation always a misinterpretation?

A. Yes, Teo and the undersigned in this case are one and the same especially from the time of the trip to Paris onwards. We come across this evidence when, on the last day in that city which happened to be the first of September 1970, Teo felt as if he had been reborn as a new person; that date happens to be my date of birth. I included this personal aside to underline the last sentence with which I ended the book, and there is a reason for this. Whoever has read the book with a modicum of patience knows that Alte Vestige does not always compliment
that which all your life you have been building everything upon. When we humans meet something that goes against that which we have always based our beliefs upon, we automatically react with a defensive instinct, which can be translated into an act of indifference as well as the tool of misinterpretation. And I am honestly convinced that
misinterpretation sometimes is healthier for Man than a correct interpretation. I would think that every analytical reader knows and understands what I am saying and why Alte Vestiga is (going to be) misinterpreted according to the contingencies of the reader involved.

Even if we look at the defensive instinct of the actual ‘characters’ what I am saying is clear, where among other things, these ‘characters’ were ready to do anything to ‘keep on going’, even to become indifferent to the ‘truth’. Man is the animal who is best able to adapt himself to every eventuality, and sometimes to do this it is necessary to lie or misinterpret things. So in this case, those who for one reason or another are going to misinterpret Alte Vestiga
according to their personal needs (even by just using silence) are normal, intelligent individuals and because they are such, these people are going to turn to their own personal ‘Father Christmas’, so that things remain the same, so that Man remains the same; this is how I ended my book.

Q. From the perspective of language, on the one hand you showed how dynamic and flexible the Maltese language can be. On the other hand elements from the Romance languages can be felt to have been used rather exaggeratedly where you could easily have used another word of Semitic origin. What is your reaction to this? Is there a particular
reason for this choice?

A. Yes, there is an answer and everything was premeditated. In fact, in the future, an abridged version of Alte Vestiga is to come out which is basically just the plot and where I am going to convert everything into modern language (the case being that NOW, I am going to turn my book into a NOVEL, and I am going to do this for the convenience of those who told me they very much wished to read my book as an easier version as they felt Alte Vestiga was too difficult. This is besides the fact that there is already an English version: the translation by the brilliant Alfred Palma which is called Memories of Recurrent Echoes).

Now the reason I chose to use a variety to linguistics together with a short meter (also an invented one) was so that I could build a ‘barricade’ to continue ‘distilling’ the reader of Alte Vestiga. Certainly an impatient reader would definitely not continue to read a ‘novel’ such as this and as a matter of fact I did my best so that Alte Vestiga would not be read by such persons; not that I have anything against them but these latter are usually people who like to go straight to the point and people who like to go straight to the point tend not to be analytical readers; rather, these readers tend to be people who like to read those pop books that were mentioned previously and so I did not want to waste these readers’ time by convincing them to read my book instead. In fact, even the presentation of the cover of the book was studied so that, as much as possible, I would put off this type of pop readers. I even used a rather strange Latin title to ascertain that only a few would be attracted to the book except for that particular minority whom I had predestined my book to be for.

Q. Nowadays there is a genre of literature that is cheap and mediocre and that aims only to excite and incite empty gratification while another type of literature aims to provoke intellectual thought. There is also pseudo-literature that tries to depict itself as original while it is nothing but plagiarism dressed up for the occasion. Then there is literature that builds constructively and eclectically on wisdom and the works of universal writers and wise people. What is your reaction to this and where would you slot in your own Alte Vestiga?

A. I am very selective when it comes to Maltese literature and this for only one reason: there are very few people who really have anything new to say with a critical intellect except that which the masses want to hear, and the problem many times is not a question of mediocrity or cheap literature but that nowadays, Man is losing his identity; he has lost contact with nature and true spirituality, he has become afraid of silence and instead is filling his life with a
lot of ‘material noise’ which continues to empty him of spirituality. So I say, how can Man, who continually lives a life of cyber plagiarism where everyone is a copy of the other and lives a cosmetic and highly structured life, write a type of literature which is thoughtful and does not reflect the emptiness inside himself?

This is why these pop books are very commercial because there are many who adhere to this model of life. In Alte Vestiga, through the use of a central character I quoted Horace in this regard where he says: “If you want to move me to tears, first of all you must have experienced this emotion yourself.” And I believe that there are few who know how
to suffer through this spiritual gestation of life and this is because nowadays, society in general is living a frenetic life; we are an impatient society that is living a culture of the cheapest ‘shortcuts’. But that which is cheap can only render a mediocre result, even in literature. A pop writer can make the gullible public believe that he is a somebody because many people read his work but in actuality he would know that no serious writer was ever acclaimed by the collective herd, especially in his immediate present, before enough time had elapsed to lend its virtue to the said writer.

I also believe that such writers of the masses have little chance of ever entering the eternal Pantheon where those who have contributed something of value to humanity live on. As to where I would place my own Alte Vestiga, that is not something that I can do myself: only the judge of time can do that; however I have been told that with my Alte
Vestiga, I have uncovered an uncomfortable truth and some have actually told me that its message is devastating. Despite this I declare: which is that most uncomfortable and devastating of truths if not pride and arrogance that make us turn our faces in the opposite direction to the way where we should look for truth – whatever the
truth is and wherever it comes from? There is one thing I know for sure, that if a book has nothing new to say, than it is going to end up, once and for all, in the depths of mediocrity.

Q. For whom did you write your Alte Vestiga? Could it be understood by the average reader who does not carry the required cultural baggage to appreciate exactly what you had in mind when you wrote the book?

A. I wrote Alte Vestiga principally for the individualist and the individualist could be anyone as long as he or she has a mind and uses it. For example in the book I frequently refer to the ‘collective herd’ and this was not an oversight. If you look at the world around you, you will note that everything is programmed for the collective herd: a sensational religion (without spirituality), television programmes (like talk show for the masses), pop books and soap operas that exalt the primitive instinct, etc. And so, there are very few who bother to notice these individualists because they are a minority and therefore generate little money, and if you are not an important cog in the economic machinery then you will be automatically set apart.

Now as to whether Alte Vestiga can be understood by readers who do not have such a vast cultural baggage I declare that everyone can learn something. For example to appreciate and understand the spirituality of classical music there is no need to be a Mozart. Speaking for myself, what little I know was not gleaned only from books but from
observing everyday life, by observing nature and by listening to silence; and when you succeed in doing this then you will come to understand many other things. Many of Michelangelo’s figures were not taken from the anatomy of people but from the shapes of clouds! And I believe that everyone knows how to look at clouds. It does not matter
much how extensively you can quote the thinkers of the past, and if I have done this in Alte Vestiga it was merely because the logistics of the argument required it. What I had in mind was that working within my limitations I tried to be of help to those who have never felt themselves to be a part of the collective herd.

If I have achieve this goal, then perhaps this question is better answered by each individualist who reads this book, and also through time.

Those who are interested in exploring further and in depth the thoughts behind Alte Vestiga may visit the author’s

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