Fresh inroads into the genre of Maltese essay-writing….

EMMANWEL F. ATTARD: Aqra, Xtarr, Aghder

Thirty-seven years after the publication of his first book of essays, Hassejt…Hsibt…Ktibt! Emmanwel F. Attard has regaled us with his second more voluminous collection, of 50 pieces differing in both length and intensity: Aqra, Xtarr, Aghder! Gabra ta’ Esejs u Rakkonti all written between 1972 and 2008.

Two aspects become immediately arresting on an initial cursory reading: firstly, the sheer variety of subject matter and thematic content, evidenced by the author’s wide scope. Here is indeed God’s plenty: from the merely whimsical (Gwerra lill-Ghafrit ta Gurdien, Dik ix-Xaghra! and a handful of others in the same semi humorous vein) to the philosophical (notably, Naghraf Lili Nnifsi Nasal??? and Ghaliex? Ghaliex?! ); from the autobiographical (Minn ‘San Filep’ Ghal ‘San Pietru’!) to the anecdotal (Gita Memorabbli ─ Safra fl-1969) and from the historical (Id-Destin ta Priday) to the narrational (U Trieghdet Malta Kollha!)

Secondly, the other most overtly evident aspect, and, in my opinion, the more interesting, and certainly more revealing, is the use of particular linguistic features which “betray” the man. Indeed the axiom, “le style, c’est l’homme” can hardly be better illustrated than in these series of texts. A cursory glance at the writing and a rudimentary literary-stylistics exercise (or, if you prefer, an elementary discourse analysis) would uncover a number of distinctive language features. For reasons of space, one can only highlight three at this stage.

One, there is a distinct shift from the use of the first person pronoun in the past tense as seen in first volume’s title: Hassejt..Hsibt…Ktibt! to that of exhortation in the marked imperattiv (2nd. Person singular) in the title: Aqra, Xtarr, Aghder! of the present text. Here, it is evident that the author’s plea ─ in direct address to the reader ─ becomes more urgent but, at the same time, less ego-centric and more mature. The linguistic ambiguity of “Aghder!”, used consciously or otherwise, is significant in this context. Is the author pleading with the reader to be”‘compassionate” to others in general, or, is it more personal… exhorting the reader to make pitiful allowances for the author himself? In either case, authorial intention is quite clear: establishing a bond, almost on a personal level, between reader and writer in the style of the 18thc. English novelists and essayists.

This aspect of style, namely that of taking the reader in strict confidence, brings me to the second stylistic-discourse observation: the inordinate number of exclamation marks, sometimes in double dose, in the title and in the main text. There is a strident urgency about it all, suggestive not only of a morally-didactic personality ─ perhaps an atavistic urge harping to Attard’s long career in teaching ─ but also to the theatrical, quasi-dramatic aspects of his outpourings as “gesture”. As Prof. Oliver Friggieri observed in his critical introduction to this volume: “Minhabba l-aspett teatrali ta dawn il-kitbiet, l-esklamazzjoni xejn ma hi nieqsa…” While this feature of “shouting at the reader” might have its irritating moments, it is nonetheless a useful tool in arresting the reader’s, or, indeed the listener’s attention to particular points that Attard wants to highlight. This is especially evident in a good number of essays, typical of which is: Dak il-Fanal! Dak il-Fanal! This piece of writing, by the way, highlights Attard’s ideas, beacon-fashion, in metaphorical parallelism to the book’s own exquisite cover-design of a lighthouse by Anna Galea. As Friggieri rightly observes, this tone of the “saggista elokwenti” contributes to the intensity of the writing.

This tonal intensity leads me on to observe another stylistic aspect idiosyncratic of Attard, namely density. This can be attested by the sheer length of a significant number of sentences peppered with “asides-within-asides”, of “brackets-within-brackets”, thoughts nestled with associations, digressions-within-digressions, reminiscent, at times, of the stream-of- consciousness technique. There are indeed rivers of long-winded sentences, of “wheels-within-wheels of thought”, which can at times, become rather heavy going. Friggieri attributes these vagrancies to the stylistic methodology used by Attard himself, which give rise to subdivisions of argumentation “…bhallikieku divagazzjonijiet li jistghu jifirxu fil-mohh kemm tieghu bhala kittieb, u kemm tal-qarreja li qeghdin jaqsmu mieghu din l-esperjenza tal-hsieb…”

And yet, the holistic effect of all this “discourse” does not detract from the simplicity of expression of feelings, nor from the sheer naked honesty of the outpourings of opinion. Indeed, however irritating, and, at times naive, some aspects of Attard’s argumentative style and content might be, for example, the tone of his overtly patronising, didactic, moralistic Christian-orthodoxy pulpit exhortations in not a few of the essays ─ no reader can doubt the fresh air of “racconteurship”. In most of the essays, the anecdotal/narrative, however parochial at first glance, is entwined with the cogitative. In this respect, Friggieri aptly labels him: “rakkontatur tal-argumenti”.

This, in my opinion, is Attard’s main contribution to this genre in Maltese prose: he does not just indulge in the usual essayist’s personal point-of-view technique, however maverick-ishly interesting this might be, but he has injected the genre with the anecdotal, and the narrational, spiced with a peculiarly pleasant flavour of a provincial raconteur des divertissements. Running through, in most of these “essays”, is an amiable streak of a village-schoolmaster personality, dripping pearls-of-wisdom-advice to his reader/listener as he indulges in classical, literary and historical allusions…. a testimony to his wide reading background, solid, though never ostentatious.

I am thus in complete agreement with Friggieri’s final evaluation:

“ … Attard jirnexxilu jipprezenta gabra ta’ saggi li tassew joffru qari

interessanti u istruttiv fis-sensi kollha tal-kelma…”

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