V, p.36

V., page 36

 

V.
 



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  German bombers over today: ME-109’s. No more need to look. We have grown used to the sound. Five times. Concentrated, as luck would have it, on Ta Kali. These grand chaps in the “Hurries” and Spitfires! What would we not do for them!

  Moving towards that island-wide sense of communion. And at the same time toward the lowest form of consciousness. His work at the Ta Kali airfield was a sapper’s drudgery; keeping the runways in condition for the British fighter planes; repairing the barracks, mess hall and hangars. At first he was able to look on it all over his shoulder, as it were: in retreat.

  Not a night since Italy declared war have we known raidless. How was it in the years of peace? Somewhere—what centuries ago?—one could sleep a night through. That’s all gone. Routed out by sirens at three in the morning—at 3:30 out to the airfield past the Bofors emplacements, the wardens, the fire-fighting crews. With death—its smell, slow after-trickling of powdered plaster, stubborn smoke and flame, still fresh in the air. The R.A.F. are magnificent, all magnificent: ground artillery, the few merchant seamen who do get through, my own comrades-in-arms. I speak of them that way: our home defense though little more than common labourers are military in the highest sense. Surely if war has any nobility it is in the rebuilding not the destruction. A few portable searchlights (they are at a premium) for us to see by. So with pick, shovel and rake we reshape our Maltese earth for those game little Spitfires.

  But isn’t it a way of glorifying God? Hard-labour surely. But as if somewhere once without our knowledge we’d been condemned for a term to prison. With the next raid all our filling and levelling is blasted away into pits and rubble piles which must then be refilled and relevelled only to be destroyed again. Day and night it never eases off. I have let pass my nightly prayers on more than one occasion. I say them now on my feet, on the job, often in rhythm to the shovelling. To kneel is a luxury these days.

  No sleep, little food; but no complaints. Are we not, Maltese, English and the few Americans, one? There is, we are taught, a communion of saints in heaven. So perhaps on Earth, also in this Purgatory, a communion: not of gods or heroes, merely men expiating sins they are unaware of, caught somehow all at once within the reaches of a sea uncrossable and guarded by instruments of death. Here on our dear tiny prison plot, our Malta.

  Retreat, then, into religious abstraction. Retreat also into poetry, which somehow he found time to write down. Fausto IV has commented elsewhere on the poetry which came out of Malta’s second Great Siege. Fausto II’s had fallen into the same patterns. Certain images recurred, major among them Valletta of the Knights. Fausto IV was tempted to put this down to simple “escape” and leave it there. It was certainly wish-fulfillment. Maratt had a vision of La Vallette patrolling the streets during blackout; Dnubietna wrote a sonnet about a dogfight (Spitfire v. ME-109) taking a knights’ duel for the sustained image. Retreat into a time when personal combat was more equal, when warfare could at least be gilded with an illusion of honor. But beyond this; could it not be a true absence of time? Fausto II even noticed this:

  Here towards midnight in a lull between raids, watching Elena and Paola sleep, I seem to have come inside time again. Midnight does mark the hairline between days, as was our Lord’s design. But when the bombs fall, or at work, then it’s as if time were suspended. As if we all laboured and sheltered in timeless Purgatory. Perhaps it comes only from living on an island. With another kind of nerves possibly one has a dimension, a vector pointing sternly to some land’s-end or other, the tip of a peninsula. But here with nowhere to go in space but into the sea it can be only the barb-and-shaft of one’s own arrogance that insists there is somewhere to go in time as well.

  Or in a more poignant vein:

  Spring has come. Perhaps there are sulla blossoms in the country. Here in the city is sun, and more rain than is really necessary. It cannot matter, can it? Even I suspect the growth of our child has nothing to do with time. Her name-wind will be here again; to soothe her face which is always dirty. Is it a world anyone could have brought a child into?

  None of us has the right to ask that anymore, Paola. Only you.

  The other great image is of something I can only call slow apocalypse. Even the radical Dnubietna, whose tastes assuredly ran to apocalypse at full gallop, eventually created a world in which the truth had precedence over his engineer’s politics. He was probably the best of our poets. First, at least, to come to a halt, about-face and toil back along his own retreat’s path; back towards the real world the bombs were leaving us. The Ash Wednesday poem marked his lowest point: after that he gave up abstraction and a political rage which he later admitted was “all posturing” to be concerned increasingly with what was, not what ought to have been or what could be under the right form of government.

  We all came back eventually. Maratt in a way which in any other context would be labeled absurdly theatrical. He was working as mechanic out at Ta Kali and had grown fond of several pilots. One by one they were shot from the sky. On the night the last one died he went calmly into the officers’ club, stole a bottle of wine—scarce then like everything else because no convoys were getting through—and got belligerently drunk. The next anyone knew he was on the edge of town at one of the Bofors emplacements, being shown how to operate the guns. They taught him in time for the next raid. He divided his time after that between airfield and artillery, getting, I believe, two to three hours’ sleep out of every twenty-four. He had an excellent record of kills. And his poetry began to show the same “retreat from retreat.”

  Fausto II’s return was most violent of all. He dropped away from abstraction and into Fausto III: a non-humanity which was the most real state of affairs. Probably. One would rather not think so.

  But all shared this sensitivity to decadence, of a slow falling, as if the island were being hammered inch by inch into the sea. “I remember,” that other Fausto wrote,

  I remember

  A sad tango on the last night of the old world

  A girl who peeped from between the palms

  At the Phoenicia Hotel

  Maria, alma de mi corazón,

  Before the crucible

  And the slag heap,

  Before the sudden craters

  And the cancerous blooming of displaced earth.

  Before the carrion birds came sweeping from the sky;

  Before that cicada,

  These locusts,

  This empty street.

  Oh we were full of lyrical lines like “At the Phoenicia Hotel.” Free verse: why not? There was simply not the time to cast it into rhyme or metre, to take care with assonance and ambiguity. Poetry had to be as hasty and rough as eating, sleep or sex. Jury-rigged and not as graceful as it might have been. But it did the job; put the truth on record.

  “Truth” I mean, in the sense of attainable accuracy. No metaphysics. Poetry is not communication with angels or with the “subconscious.” It is communication with the guts, genitals and five portals of sense. Nothing more.

  Now there is your grandmother, child, who also comes into this briefly. Carla Maijstral she died as you know last March, outliving my father by three years. An event which might have been enough to produce a new Fausto, had it been in an earlier “reign.” Fausto II, for instance, was that sort of confused Maltese youth who finds island-love and mother-love impossible to separate. Had Fausto IV been more of a nationalist when Carla died, we might now have a Fausto V.

  Early in the war we get passages like this:

  Malta is a noun feminine and proper. Italians have indeed been attempting her defloration since the 8th of June. She lies on her back in the sea, sullen; an immemorial woman. Spread to the explosive orgasms of Mussolini bombs. But her soul hasn’t been touched; cannot be. Her soul is the Maltese people, who wait—only wait—down in her clefts and catacombs alive and with a numb strength, filled with faith in God His Churc
h. How can her flesh matter? It is vulnerable, a victim. But as the Ark was to Noah so is the inviolable womb of our Maltese rock to her children. Something given us in return for being filial and constant, children also of God.

  Womb of rock. What subterranean confessions we wandered into! Carla must have told him at some point of the circumstances surrounding his birth. It had been near the time of the June Disturbances, in which old Maijstral was involved. Precisely how never came clear. But deeply enough to alienate Carla both from him and from herself. Enough so that one night we both nearly took a doomed acrobat’s way down the steps at the Harbor end of Str. San Giovanni; I to limbo, she to a suicide’s hell. What had kept her? The boy Fausto could only gather from listening in to her evening prayers that it was an Englishman; a mysterious being named Stencil.

  Did he feel trapped? Having escaped lucky from one womb, now forced into the oubliette of another not so happily starred?

  Again the classic response: retreat. Again into his damnable “communion.” When Elena’s mother died from a stray bomb dropped on Vittoriosa:

  Oh, we’ve become accustomed to these things. My own mother is alive and well. God willing will continue so. But if she is to be taken from me (or me from her) ikun li trid Int: Thy will be done. I refuse to dwell on death because I know well enough that a young man, even here, dotes along in an illusion of immortality.

  But perhaps more on this island because we’ve become, after all, one another. Parts of a unity. Some die, others continue. If a hair falls or a fingernail is torn away, am I any less alive and determined?

  Seven raids today; so far. One “plot” of nearly a hundred Messerschmitts. They have leveled the churches, the Knights’ auberges, the old monuments. They have left us a Sodom. Nine raids yesterday. Work harder than I’ve known it. My body would grow but there’s little enough food. Few ships get through; convoys are sunk. Some of my comrades have dropped out. Weak from hunger. A miracle I was not the first to fall. Imagine. Maijstral, the frail University-poet, a labourer, a builder! And one who will survive. I must.

  It’s the rock they come back to. Fausto II managed to work himself into superstition:

  Don’t touch them, these walls. They carry the explosions for miles. The rock hears everything, and brings it to bone, up the fingers and arm, down through the bone-cage and bone-sticks and out again through the bone-webs. Its little passage through you is accident, merely in the nature of rock and bone: but it’s as if you were given a reminder.

  The vibration is impossible to talk about. Felt sound. Buzzing. The teeth buzz: Pain, a numb prickling along the jawbone, stifling concussion at the eardrums. Over and over. Mallet-blows as long as the raid, raids as long as the day. You never get used to it. You’d think we’d all have gone mad by now. What keeps me standing erect and away from the walls? And silent. A brute clinging to awareness, nothing else. Pure Maltese. Perhaps it is meant to go on forever. If “forever” still has any meaning.

  Stand free, Maijstral. . . .

  The passage above comes toward the Siege’s end. The phrase “womb of rock” now, had emphasis for Dnubietna, Maratt and Fausto at the end not the beginning. It is part of time’s chiromancy to reduce those days to simple passage through a grammatical sequence. Dnubietna wrote:

  Motes of rock’s dust

  Caught among corpses of carob trees;

  Atoms of iron

  Swirl above the dead forge

  On that cormorant side of the moon.

  Maratt wrote:

  We knew they were only puppets

  And the music from a gramophone:

  Knew the gathered silk would fade,

  Ball-fringe fray,

  Plush contract the mange;

  Knew, or suspected, that children do grow up;

  Would begin to shuffle after the first hundred years

  Of the performance; yawn towards afternoon,

  Begin to see the peeling paint on Judy’s cheek,

  Detect implausibility in the palsied stick

  And self-deception in the villain’s laugh.

  But dear Christ, whose slim jewelled hand was it

  Flicked from the wings so unexpected,

  Holding the lighted wax taper

  To send up all our poor but precious tinder

  In flame of terrible colours?

  Who was she who gently laughed, “Good night,”

  Among the hoarse screaming of aged children?

  From the quick to the inanimate. The great “movement” of the Siege poetry. As went Fausto II’s already dual soul. All the while only in the process of learning life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.

  Seeing his mother after a period of months away:

  Time has touched her. I found myself wondering: did she know that in this infant she brought forth, to whom she gave the name for happy (ironic?) was a soul which would become torn and unhappy? Does any mother anticipate the future; acknowledge when the time comes that a son is now a man and must leave her to make whatever peace he can alone on a treacherous Earth. No, it’s the same Maltese timelessness. They don’t feel the fingers of years jittering age, fallibility, blindness into face, heart and eyes. A son is a son, fixed always in the red and wrinkled image as they first see it. There are always elephants to be made drunk.

  This last from an old folk tale. The king wants a palace made of elephant tusks. The boy had inherited physical strength from his father, a military hero. But it was for the mother to teach the son cunning. Make friends with them, feed them wine, kill them, steal their ivory. The boy is successful of course. But no mention of a sea voyage.

  “There must have been,” Fausto explains, “millennia ago, a land-bridge. They called Africa the Land of the Axe. There were elephants south of Mount Ruwenzori. Since then the sea has steadily crept in. German bombs may finish it.”

  Decadence, decadence. What is it? Only a clear movement toward death or, preferably, non-humanity. As Fausto II and III, like their island, became more inanimate, they moved closer to the time when like any dead leaf or fragment of metal they’d be finally subject to the laws of physics. All the time pretending it was a great struggle between the laws of man and the laws of God.

  Is it only because Malta is a matriarchal island that Fausto felt so strongly that connection between mother-rule and decadence?

  “Mothers are closer than anyone to accident. They are most painfully conscious of the fertilized egg; as Mary knew the moment of conception. But the zygote has no soul. Is matter.” Further along these lines he would not go. But:

  Their babies always seem to come by happenstance; a random conjunction of events. Mothers close ranks, and perpetrate a fictional mystery about motherhood. It’s only a way of compensating for an inability to live with the truth. Truth being that they do not understand what is going on inside them; that it is a mechanical and alien growth which at some point acquires a soul. They are possessed. Or: the same forces which dictate the bomb’s trajectory, the deaths of stars, the wind and the waterspout have focussed somewhere inside the pelvic frontiers without their consent, to generate one more mighty accident. It frightens them to death. It would frighten anyone.

  So it moves us on toward the question of Fausto’s “understanding” with God. Apparently his problem was never as simple as God v. Caesar, especially Caesar inanimate—the one we see in old medals and statues, the “force” we read of in history texts. Caesar for one thing was animate once, and had his own difficulties with a world of things as well as a degenerate crew of gods. It would be easier, since drama arises out of conflict, to call it simply human law v. divine, all within the arena in quarantine that had been Fausto’s home. I mean his soul and I also mean the island. But this isn’t drama. Only an apologia for the Day of the 13 Raids. Even what happen
ed then had no clear lines drawn.

  I know of machines that are more complex than people. If this is apostasy, hekk ikun. To have humanism we must first be convinced of our humanity. As we move further into decadence this becomes more difficult.

  More and more alien from himself, Fausto II began to detect signs of lovely inanimateness in the world around him.

  Now the winter’s gregale brings in bombers from the north; as Euroclydon it brought in St. Paul. Blessings, curses. But is the wind any part of us? Has it anything at all to do with us?

  Somewhere perhaps behind a hill—some shelter—farmers are sowing wheat for a June harvest. Bombing is concentrated around Valletta, the Three Cities, the Harbour. Pastoral life has become enormously attractive. But there are strays: one killed Elena’s mother. We cannot expect more of the bombs than of the wind. We should not expect. If I am not to become marid b’mohhu, I can only go on as sapper, as gravedigger, I must refuse to think of any other condition, past or future. Better to say: “This has always been. We’ve always lived in Purgatory and our term here is at best indefinite.”

  Apparently he took at this time to shambling about in the streets, during raids. Hours away from Ta Kali, when he should have been sleeping. Not out of any bravery, or for any reason connected with his job. Nor, at first, for very long.

  Pile of brick, grave-shaped. Green beret lying nearby. Royal Commandoes? Star-shells from the Bofors over Marsamuscetto. Red light, long shadows from behind the shop at the corner which move in the unsteady light about a hidden pivot-point. Impossible to tell shadows of what.

  Early sun still low on the sea. Blinding. Long blinding track, white road in from the sun to point of view. Sound of Messerschmitts. Invisible. Sound which grows louder. Spitfires scramble aloft, high angle of climb. Small, black in such bright sun. Course towards sun. Dirty marks appear on the sky. Orange-brown-yellow. Colour of excrement. Black. Sun turns the edges gold. And the edges trail like jellyfish towards the horizon. Marks spread, new ones bloom in the centres of old. Air up there is often so still. Other times a wind, up high, must streak them into nothing in seconds. Wind, machines, dirty smoke. Sometimes the sun. When there’s rain nothing can be seen. But the wind sweeps in and down and everything can be heard.

 

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