This entry is a part of a special series of The City and the Writer featuring writers who will be appearing as a part of the 2016 New Literature from Europe Festival, happening in New York City, December 7–10. See Immanuel Mifsud at the festival, and check back on WWB Daily tomorrow for an interview with Krisztina Tóth, conducted by C&W curator and festival participant Nathalie Handal.
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Paola as you feel/see it?
Paola is a working-class town near the docks in the southern part of Malta. Although established by the Knights of St. John in the seventeenth century, it was only at the turn of the twentieth that it started to be populated, especially after the Second World War. It is a town full of irony and contrasts and is quite melancholic. Locals never refer to it by its proper name, but by a nickname—Rahal Gdid, Maltese for “new village.” Ironically in this new town there is the oldest prehistoric construction in Malta, the Hypogeum, a subterranean burial and ritual site that is dated around 4000 BCE. It is the only underground temple in the world. Paola also boasts of having the only mosque and the largest Catholic church on the island, besides having the largest cemetery and the only prison in Malta. It’s worth mentioning that lying in the outskirts of the town, there is a mysterious looking villa that serves as a masonic temple.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
I have many heartbreaking memories of Paola. But the one that haunts me most is the brutal murder in 1989 of an old lady who I used to help cross the town’s main square, where she used to run her errands. She was killed by two men who forced their way into her home to rob her, tricking her by asking for some water.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
Very near the mosque, in an area of the city known as Kordin, there are the remains of yet another Neolithic structure. Actually there were three of them, but sadly only the third one survived neglect and the damages of the Second World War. Very few know of Kordin III because at present there is no public access to it.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Paola is not known for writers and artists. At most it has produced a number of prominent politicians, some, to put it mildly, of dubious reputation. However, one writer that comes to mind is Laurence Mizzi. Originally from the neighboring harbor town of Birgu, Mizzi’s family settled in Paola soon after the war. He is mostly known for his wartime memoirs and the popular history of the Second World War, with books such as Wartime Diary of a Maltese Boy and The People’s War: Malta 1940-1943. Anton Grasso, the horror book paperback writer, is also from Paola. His books were very popular with horror book lovers in Malta, but none of them are translated.
Is there a place here you return to often?
I don’t go to Paola often nowadays. Sometimes I go to visit two very old aunts who still live there, in the older part of the city. At other times I drive through either late at night or on weekend afternoons when the streets where I used to play, the main square where we courted our first girls, and the playground opposite the elementary school become incredibly lonely and melancholic. That’s the time when ghosts emerge to roam, following closely the solitary passerby. Before the Hypogeum became a World Heritage Site with very restricted (and expensive) admission, I used to go there every weekend. The place still thrills me to no end, and the feeling it creates in me goes beyond words.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Sometimes I think of the Hypogeum as a hidden necropolis. After all, it contains the remains of some 7000 people. The different chambers—especially The Oracle Room and The Holy of Holies—the darkness, the spiral designs on the ceilings, the silence . . . are very alluring. But the most precious, seductive artifact that lay hidden in this marvel was the Sleeping Lady (or, as it is sometimes called, the Sleeping Goddess), a small terracotta statuette of a fat lady lying on her side, sleeping. Nowadays she sleeps at the National Museum of Archeology. When you see her and consider she’s some six thousand years old, you just cannot help but stare at her in awe. I’ve never seen anything like her.
Where does passion live here?
Passion lives in the band clubs, especially in the last weekend of July when the city’s festa is celebrated. Locals dance and sing (or rather roar) to the marches in the searing heat of summer mornings and afternoons, or late in the evening until the little hours. You can feel passion also at football matches, especially when the local team plays the derby against the more ancient neighboring village or that of the capital city. When the club wins the championship, the passion moves to the main square—one of the largest in Malta—where thousands flock to make merry and, of course, drink. For festa the streets are beautifully decorated, red and yellow, and white and black for the football club celebrations.
What is the title of one of your works about Paola and what inspired it exactly?
Various works of mine are set in Paola. The book In the Name of the Father (and of the Son), being part memoir, has many things happening in different parts of town. The main character of one of my first short stories, “Ruby,” is also based on someone I knew who lived a couple of blocks away from us. Two other stories, “Ultras” and “Sonia,” are based on the memory of two childhood friends of mine who died young of heroin overdoses. So many childhood friends or acquaintances from Paola died young: either of overdoses or suicide. I even dedicated one of my collections to the memory of these guys.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Paola does an outside exist?”
Yes, definitely. Paola is no longer what it used to be. Once people became more affluent, the young began to go elsewhere to have fun, rather than sticking to the piazza and the little bars spread around town. In fact, most of these bars have closed, and nowadays you see many clothing shops and insurance agencies and banks and offices instead. The prominent characters that always attracted everybody’s attention—for example, those old men who were always dead drunk by 10 a.m., or the simpleton who was always asking for cents and rebuked girls for wearing jeans, or the unkempt woman who always wore the same clothes and hung out near the elementary school challenging children to play with her with coins instead of marbles, and the other distinctive personalities we laughed at and discussed—have long since passed away. Paola became the commercial center of the South, and that means traffic, noise and, of course, pollution. I realize that by now I have lived more outside my city, and I do not miss it much. Having said that, I still carry it with me, in my memories. But there is an outside, yes, although I don’t feel I really belong anywhere. Following Rimbaud, I’m convinced that true life is always elsewhere, irrespective of where that elsewhere lies.
Immanuel Mifsud (Malta, 1967) writes poetry and prose. He won the National Book Award three times: for his short-story collection Sara Sue Sammut’s Strange Stories (2002), for his novel Jutta Heim (2014), and for his poetry collection Penelope Waits (2013). Mifsud was the first Maltese writer to win a major European literary prize when he won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011 with his book In the Name of the Father (and of the Son), which has since been translated into a number of languages. Various other works of his have been published internationally. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of Malta, where he also lectures in literature and literary theory.
Published Dec 6, 2016 Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal