This Maltese Woman Knows: Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh (2014)

You know those Romantics; always bitching at each others’ throats. For instance Keats, who didn’t like Coleridge much because he believed that he valued knowledge over beauty. Keats, for one, didn’t, and he married both splendidly in what at the time passed for #coleridgesucks: a letter. On the 21st of December 1817, he wrote to his two brothers:

‘… it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature… I mean Negative Capability… when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…’

What Man is capable of being, Woman can be too, and this is where, ladies and gentleman, Clare Azzopardi comes in.

For those of you who don’t know her, Ms Azzopardi is one of the most prolific writers on the island. At 37 years of age she has novels, short stories, poems, plays, picture books, textbooks and workbooks under her belt. She is a veritable writing machine, one that, luckily for us, produces quality in quantity.

The eight stories featured in her latest anthology, Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh, all carry a female name: “Sandra”, “Rita”, “Gracey”, “Roża”, “Lily”, “Margaret”, “Camilla” and “Polly”. Being female and being Maltese are two motifs close to Ms Azzopardi’s heart. She speaks about women, articulating their concerns, their anxieties, their joys and their disappointments. Her voice is decidedly female (which one must not assume simply by virtue of her sex) and the landscapes she paints, both interior and exterior, are definitely Maltese.

kullhadd-halla-isem-warajh

However this is not a book with a militant feminist agenda as perceived through a Maltese lens. Not at all. Ms Azzopardi’s characters are vessels and/or allegories that seek higher truths than those espoused by allosomes and citizenship, focusing on images, concepts and ideas that speak to us as human beings. They ask questions without insulting us with answers; or, as the physician poet put it, ‘uncertainties, mysteries and doubts’.

Rumour is a recurrent motif in Ms Azzopardi’s anthology. Whether it stems from neighbourly gossip, a personal grudge or an unresolved past, it acts as a catalyst that instigates and accentuates an obsessive drive towards establishing a self.

We never meet the titular character in “Camilla” but yet her presence, part spectral and part vampiric, is everpresent. We get to know her intimately through hearsay; everyone knows everything and nothing about her and, just like death, whose agent she seems to be (she wrote epitaphs when she was alive), she ubiquitously possesses the lives of the people who come in contact with her or her mythos.

“Lily” is another case in point. Here we have an Austerian tale (as in Paul Auster) in which Claudine, seemingly free of her past, haunts the neighbourhood where she grew up. Her obsession with her former house and its present tenants reaches absurdist proportions until it finally tears apart the very fabric of her being. She dissolves right in front of our eyes, becoming little more than a whisper trapped inside a gaol of her own devise.

Or maybe not. Maybe Claudine is the creation of the house she once inhabited.

Dealing in uncertainties is not the same as being vague. It’s taking one chilling step after another, on a very very fine line that divides the known from the unknown, the truths from the untruths, the two sides of the same coin. Think of it as a gentle murmur, a pale area of liminality. This is the place that “Gracey”, “Rita”, “Sandra” and the others  inhabit, a world where people have a name but not a self, ensnared within a spatio-temporal loop that is fed by the shackling dictates of fate. Choices and conundrums abound but the difficulty of committing oneself, sometimes to taking a leap of faith, holds them back from beginning a new life, bettering the one that they have.

Maybe it’s too early in the year to commit myself but I’m taking the plunge: Ms Azzopardi, with Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh, has raised the local literary stakes very high and it’s going to be extremely hard to top this one.

—–

Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh is a Merlin Publishers book.

You can visit Clare Azzopardi’s site HERE.

This review was first published on Malta Today.

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