V, p.35

V., page 35



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  Maijstral the Second arrived with you, child, and with the war. You were unplanned for and in a way resented. Though if Fausto I had ever had a serious vocation, Elena Xemxi your mother—and you—would never have come into his life at all. The plans of our Movement were disturbed. We still wrote—but there was other work to do. Our poetic “destiny” was replaced by the discovery of an aristocracy deeper and older. We were builders.

  Fausto Maijstral III was born on the Day of the 13 Raids. Generated: out of Elena’s death, out of a horrible encounter with one we only knew as the Bad Priest. An encounter I am only now attempting to put in English. The journal for weeks after has nothing but gibberish to describe that “birth trauma.” Fausto III is the closest any of the characters comes to non-humanity. Not “inhumanity,” which means bestiality; beasts are still animate. Fausto III had taken on much of the non-humanity of the debris, crushed stone, broken masonry, destroyed churches and auberges of his city.

  His successor, Fausto IV, inherited a physically and spiritually broken world. No single event produced him. Fausto III had merely passed a certain level in his slow return to consciousness or humanity. That curve is still rising. Somehow there had accumulated a number of poems (at least one sonnet-cycle the present Fausto is still happy with); monographs on religion, language, history; critical essays (Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, di Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros). Fausto IV was the “man of letters” and only survivor of the Generation of ’37, for Dnubietna is building roads in America, and Maratt is somewhere south of Mount Ruwenzori, organizing riots among our linguistic brothers the Bantu.

  We have now reached an interregnum. Stagnant; the only throne a wooden chair in the NW corner of this room. Hermetic: for who can hear the Dockyard whistle, rivet guns, vehicles in the street when one is occupied with the past?

  Now memory is a traitor: gilding, altering. The word is, in sad fact, meaningless, based as it is on the false assumption that identity is single, soul continuous. A man has no more right to set forth any self-memory as truth than to say “Maratt is a sour-mouthed University cynic” or “Dnubietna is a liberal and madman.”

  Already you see: the “is”—unconsciously we’ve drifted into the past. You must now be subjected, dear Paola, to a barrage of undergraduate sentiment. The journals, I mean, of Fausto I and II. What other way can there be to regain him, as we must? Here, for example:

  How wondrous is this St. Giles Fair called history! Her rhythms pulse regular and sinusoidal—a freak show in caravan, travelling over thousands of little hills. A serpent hypnotic and undulant, bearing on her back like infinitesimal fleas such hunchbacks, dwarves, prodigies, centaurs, poltergeists! Two-headed, three-eyed, hopelessly in love; satyrs with the skin of werewolves, werewolves with the eyes of young girls and perhaps even an old man with a navel of glass, through which can be seen goldfish nuzzling the coral country of his guts.

  The date is of course 3 September 1939: the mixing of metaphors, crowding of detail, rhetoric-for-its-own-sake only a way of saying the balloon had gone up, illustrating again and certainly not for the last time the colorful whimsy of history.

  Could we have been so much in the midst of life? With such a sense of grand adventure about it all? “Oh, God is here, you know, in the crimson carpets of sulla each spring, in the blood-orange groves, in the sweet pods of my carob tree, the St.-John’s-bread of this dear island. His fingers raked the ravines; His breath keeps the rain clouds from over us, His voice once guided the shipwrecked St. Paul to bless our Malta.” And Maratt wrote:

  Britain and Crown, we join thy swelling guard

  To drive the brute invader from our strand.

  For God His own shall rout the evil-starred

  And God light peace’s lamps with His dear hand. . . .

  “God His own”; that brings a smile. Shakespeare. Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot ruined us all. On Ash Wednesday of ’42, for example, Dnubietna wrote a “satire” on Eliot’s poem:

  Because I do

  Because I do not hope

  Because I do not hope to survive

  Injustice from the Palace, death from the air.

  Because I do,

  Only do,

  I continue. . . .

  We were most fond, I believe, of “The Hollow Men.” And we did like to use Elizabethan phrases even in our speech. There is a description, sometime in 1937, of a farewell celebration for Maratt on the eve of his marriage. All of us drunk, arguing politics: it was in a café in Kingsway—scusi, Strada Reale then. Before the Italians started bombing us. Dnubietna had called our Constitution “hypocritical camouflage for a slave state.” Maratt objected. Dnubietna leapt up on the table, upsetting glasses, knocking the bottle to the floor, screaming “Go to, caitiff!” It became the cant phrase for our “set”: go to. The entry was written, I suppose, next morning: but even in the misery of a headache the dehydrated Fausto I was still able to talk of the pretty girls, the hot-jazz band, the gallant conversation. The prewar University years were probably as happy as he described, and the conversation as “good.” They must have argued everything under the sun, and in Malta then was a good deal of sun.

  But Fausto I was as bastardized as the others. In the midst of the bombing in ’42, his successor commented:

  Our poets write of nothing now but the rain of bombs from what was once Heaven. We builders practice, as we must, patience and strength but—the curse of knowing English and its emotional nuances!—with it a desperate-nervous hatred of this war, an impatience for it to be over.

  I think our education in the English school and University alloyed what was pure in us. Younger, we talked of love, fear, motherhood; speaking in Maltese as Elena and I do now. But what a language! Have it, or today’s Builders, advanced at all since the half-men who built the sanctuaries of Hagiar Kim? We talk as animals might.

  Can I explain “love”? Tell her my love for her is the same and part of my love for the Bofors crews, the Spitfire pilots, our Governor? That it is love which embraces this island, love for everything on it that moves! There are no words in Maltese for this. Nor finer shades; nor words for intellectual states of mind. She cannot read my poetry, I cannot translate it for her.

  Are we only animals then. Still one with the troglodytes who lived here 400 centuries before dear Christ’s birth. We do five as they did in the bowels of the earth. Copulate, spawn, die without uttering any but the grossest words. Do any of us even understand the words of God, teachings of His Church? Perhaps Maijstral, Maltese, one with his people, was meant only to live at the threshold of consciousness, only exist as a hardly animate lump of flesh, an automaton.

  But we are torn, our grand “Generation of ’37.” To be merely Maltese: endure almost mindless, without sense of time? Or to think—continuously—in English, to be too aware of war, of time, of all the grays and shadows of love?

  Perhaps British colonialism has produced a new sort of being, a dual man, aimed two ways at once: toward peace and simplicity on the one hand, towards an exhausted intellectual searching on the other. Perhaps Maratt, Dnubietna and Maijstral are the first of a new race. What monsters shall rise in our wake. . . .

  These thoughts are from the darker side of my mind—mohh, brain. Not even a word for mind. We must use the hateful Italian, menti.

  What monsters. You, child, what sort of monster are you? Perhaps not at all of course what Fausto meant: he may have been talking of a spiritual heritage. Perhaps of Fausto III and IV, et seq. But the excerpt shows clearly a charming quality of youth: to begin with optimism; and once the inadequacy of optimism is borne in on him by an inevitably hostile world, to retreat into abstractions. Abstractions even in the midst of the bombing. For a year and a half Malta averaged ten raids per day. How he sustained that hermetic retreat, God alone knows. There’s no indication in the journals. Perhaps it too sprang from the Anglicized half of Fausto II: for he wrote poetry. Ev
en in the journals we get sudden shifts from reality to something less:

  I write this during a night raid, down in the abandoned sewer. It is raining outside. The only fight is from phosphorus flares above the city, a few candles in here, bombs. Elena is beside me, holding the child who sleeps drooling against her shoulder. Packed close round us are other Maltese, English civil servants, a few Indian tradesmen. There’s little talk. Children listen, all wide eyes, to bombs above in the streets. For them it is only an amusement. At first they cried on being wakened in the middle of the night. But they’ve grown used to it. Some even stand now near the entrance to our shelter, watching the flares and bombs, chattering, nudging, pointing. It will be a strange generation. What of our own? She sleeps.

  And then, for no apparent reason, this:

  O Malta of the Knights of St. John! History’s serpent is one; what matter where on her body we be. Here in this wretched tunnel we are the Knights and the Giaours; we are L’Isle-Adam and his ermine arm, and his maniple on a field of blue sea and gold sun, we are M. Parisot, lonely in his wind-haunted grave high above the Harbour; battling on the ramparts during the Great Siege—both! My Grandmaster, both: death and life, ermine and old cloth, noble and common, in feast and combat and mourning we are Malta, one, pure and a motley of races at once; no time has passed since we lived in caves, grappled with fish at the reedy shore, buried our dead with a song, with red-ochre and pulled up our dolmens, temples and menhirs and standing stones to the glory of some indeterminate god or gods, rose toward the light in andanti of singing, lived our lives through circling centuries of rape, looting, invasion, still one; one in the dark ravines, one in this God-favoured plot of sweet Mediterranean earth, one in whatever temple or sewer or catacomb’s darkness is ours, by fate or historical writhings or still by the will of God.

  He must have written the latter part at home, after the raid; but the “shift” is still there. Fausto II was a young man in retreat. It’s seen not only in his fascination for the conceptual—even in the midst of that ongoing, vast—but somehow boring—destruction of an island; but also in his relationship with your mother.

  First mention of Elena Xemxi comes from Fausto I, shortly after Maratt’s marriage. Perhaps, a breach having been made in the bachelorhood of the Generation of ’37—though from all indications the movement was anything but celibate—Fausto now, felt safe enough to follow suit. And of course at the same time taking these fidgeting and inconclusive steps towards Church celibacy.

  Oh, he was “in love”: no doubt. But his own ideas on the matter always in a state of flux, never I think getting quite in line with the Maltese version: Church-approved copulation for the purpose, and glorification, of motherhood. We already know for example how Fausto in the worst part of the Siege of ’40–’43 had arrived at a notion and practice of love wide, high and deep as Malta itself.

  The dog days have ended, the maijstral has ceased to blow. Soon the other wind called gregale will bring the gentle rains to solemnize the sowing of our red wheat.

  Myself: what am I if not a wind, my very name a hissing of queer zephyrs through the carob trees? I stand in time between the two winds, my will no more than a puff of air. But air too are the clever, cynical arguments of Dnubietna. His views on marriage—even Maratt’s marriage—blow by my poor flapping ears unnoticed.

  For Elena—tonight! O Elena Xemxi: small as the she-goat, sweet your milk and your love-cry. Dark-eyed as the space between stars over Ghaudex where we have gazed so often in our childish summers. Tonight will I go to your little house in Vittoriosa, and before your black eyes break open this small pod of a heart and offer in communion the St. John’s-bread I have cherished like a Eucharist these nineteen years.

  He did not propose marriage; but confessed his love. There was still, you see, the vague “program”—the vocation to priesthood he was never quite sure of. Elena hesitated. When young Fausto questioned, she became evasive. He promptly began to display symptoms of intense jealousy:

  Has she lost her faith? I’ve heard she has been out with Dnubietna—Dnubietna! Under his hands. Our Lord, is there no recourse? Must I go out and find them together: follow through the old farce of challenge, combat, murder . . . How he must be gloating: It was all planned. Must have been. Our discussions of marriage. He even told me one evening—hypothetically, of course, oh yes!—precisely how he would find a virgin someday and “educate” her to sin. Told me knowing all the time that someday it would be Elena Xemxi. My friend. Comrade-in-arms. One third of our Generation. I could never take her back. One touch from him and eighteen years of purity—gone!

  Etc., etc. Dnubietna, as Fausto must have known even in the worst depths of suspicion, had nothing at all to do with her reluctance. Suspicion softened to a nostalgic brooding:

  Sunday there was rain, leaving me with memories. Rain seems to make them swell like bothersome flowers whose perfume is bittersweet. A night I remember: we were children, embracing in a garden above the Harbor. The rustling of azaleas, smell of oranges, a black frock she wore that absorbed all the stars and moon; reflecting nothing back. As she had taken from me, all my light. She has the carob-softness of my heart.

  Ultimately their quarrel took in a third party. In typically Maltese fashion, a priest, one Father Avalanche, came in as the intermediary. He appears infrequently in these journals, always faceless, serving more as foil to his opposite number the Bad Priest. But he did finally persuade Elena to return to Fausto.

  She came to me today, out of smoke, rain, silence. Wearing black, nearly invisible. Sobbing plausibly enough in my too-welcoming arms.

  She’s to have a child. Dnubietna’s, came my first thought (of course it did—for all of half a second—fool). The Father said mine. She had been to A. for confession. God knows what passed there. This good priest cannot break the secrecy of the confessional. Only let slip what the three of us know—that it is my child—so that we should be two souls united before God.

  So much for our plan. Maratt and Dnubietna will be disappointed.

  So much for their plan. We will return to this matter of vocation.

  From a distraught Elena then, Fausto learned of his “rival”: the Bad Priest.

  No one knows his name or his parish. There is only superstitious rumour; excommunicated, confederates with the Dark One. He lives in an old villa past Sliema, near the sea. Found E. one night alone in the street. Perhaps he’d been out prowling for souls. A sinister figure, she said, but with the mouth of a Christ. The eyes were shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat; all she could see were soft cheeks, even teeth.

  Now it was none of your mysterious “corruption.” Priests here are second only to mothers in order of prestige. A young girl is naturally enough deferent to and awed by the mere glimpse of any fluttering soutane in the street. Under subsequent questioning, it came out:

  “It was near the church—our church. By a long low wall in the street, after sunset, but still light. He asked if I was going to the church. I hadn’t thought to go. Confessions were over. I don’t know why I agreed to walk there with him. It was not a command—though I would have obeyed if it had been—but we went up the hill, and into the church, up the side aisle to the confessional.

  “ ‘Have you confessed?’ he asked.

  “I looked at his eyes. I thought at first he was drunk, or marid b’mohhu. I was afraid.

  “ ‘Come then.’ We entered the confessional. At the time I thought: don’t priests have the right? But I did tell him things I have never told Father Avalanche. I didn’t know then who this priest was, you see.”

  Now sin for Elena Xemxi had been heretofore as natural a function as breathing, eating, or gossiping. Under the agile instruction of the Bad Priest, however, it began to take on the shape of an evil spirit: alien, parasitic, attached like a black slug to her soul.

  How could she marry anyone? She was fit, said the Bad Priest, not for the world
but for the convent. Christ was her proper husband. No human male could coexist with the sin which fed on her girl-soul. Only Christ was mighty enough, loving enough, forgiving enough. Had He not cured the lepers and exorcised malignant fevers? Only He could welcome disease, clasp it to His bosom, rub against it, kiss it. It had been His mission on Earth as now, a spiritual husband in heaven, to know sickness intimately, love it, cure it. This was parable, the Bad Priest told her, metaphor for spirit’s cancer. But the Maltese mind, conditioned by its language, is unreceptive to such talk. All my Elena saw was the disease, the literal sickness. Afraid I, or our children, would reap its ravages.

  She stayed away from me and from Father A.’s confessional. Stayed in her own house, searched her body each morning and examined her conscience each night for progressive symptoms of the metastasis she feared was in her. Another vocation: whose words were garbled and somehow sinister, as Fausto’s own had been.

  These, poor child, are the sad events surrounding your given name. It is a different name now that you’ve been carried off by the U.S. Navy. But beneath that accident you are still Maijstral-Xemxi—a terrible misalliance. May you survive it. I fear not so much a reappearance in you of Elena’s mythical “disease” as a fracturing of personality such as your father has undergone. May you be only Paola, one girl: a single given heart, a whole mind at peace. That is a prayer, if you wish.

  Later, after the marriage, after your birth, well into the reign of Fausto II when the bombs were falling, the relationship with Elena must have come under some kind of moratorium. There being, perhaps, enough else to do. Fausto enlisted in the home defense; Elena had taken to nursing: feeding and keeping sheltered the bombed-out, comforting the wounded, bandaging, burying. At this time—assuming his theory of the “dual man” to be so—Fausto II was becoming more Maltese and less British.


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