A 100-year saga
by Noel Grima

Reviewed by Noel Grima


Anton Sammut

Memories of Recurrent Echoes

(Translation of Alte Vestiga by Alfred Palma )

I had not read the original Maltese version when it was published. I know however that at the time it had made quite a big splash in Malta’s small literary circle.

With a translation into English (a very good translation by Alfred Palma), the book can now be read by an international audience, which is only fitting, seeing that the book is not about Malta at all, but about Bavaria.

It tracks the complicated lives of a rather extended family with friends from 1890 to 1990.

Bavaria means farmland, and the story fittingly begins in a small lost Bavarian village, with a lifestyle that would seem idyllic today – people know each other, people care for each other – people in that small village are like one big family.

But Bavaria also means strong Catholic roots, and the story begins with a young very beautiful girl, Nadia, who begins to fall in love with a young priest in the parish, Fr Friedrich.

The idyllic surroundings, the quiet rural somnolence, hide terrible facts: violence bred of jealousy rears its head and destroys people’s lives. Nadia ends up pregnant and the priest is sent away from the village.

Somehow, life goes on and some people get another chance in life. Nadia finds a rich and kind doctor who weds her and becomes father to her children. Others are not so lucky. The man who raped Nadia goes crazy. The innocent priest becomes depressed in the convent to which he was sent.

Years have passed. Germany lost the First World War and the depression was about to envelop the country and lead to the terrible advent of Nazism and World War Two. In the small world of Nadia’s family a terrible tragedy ensues, her husband is killed, but Nadia struggles on. The priest is unfrocked and they become lovers. But then an even greater tragedy occurs.

And so it goes on, and on. Life is a succession of terrible events but somehow human spirit always seems to find ways to triumph, or at least to dampen the tragedy.

As the book’s English title says, life is a succession of “recurrent echoes”. There is good, and there is also evil around. Bavaria, as I said, has Catholic roots: one of Nadia’s sons becomes a good priest but she has much to suffer from a very bad priest. Friendship and more sprouts out of situations that one would never have imagined would lead to friendship.

In the chaotic and convulsive post-war world, it is amazingly easy for things to go seriously unhinged, but somehow humanity always seems to scrape through.

The 1960s and the Baader-Meinhof 1970s do not seem to affect much this small family network as much as sheer old age and deaths of beloved ones do. Different lifestyles emerge but family ties survive and thrive.

Seen in summary form like this, the book would seem to be more on the cyclic view of history than on history as getting somewhere. Life from 1890 to 1990, despite all the tragedies and the huge cataclysms of the 20th century, is basically the same. People who are innately good do suffer and endure pain but ultimately goodness triumphs. That may not be the experience we have in life, nor do we find that the good ultimately emerge relatively unscathed.

The book is a remarkable feat for the author, especially when one delves into the philosophical background, which underlies many of the rather long soliloquies, or verbal sparring that mark the book. As Fr Ludwig, Nadia’s son, says towards the end: “Only God will bring forth roses from thorns. Don’t forget, my dears, that Man is a very fragile creature, sometimes caught in a tremendous emptiness, which can only be filled by God’s infinity…”

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