His widely-publicised court case brought him overnight notoriety but in his latest novel Alex Vella Gera is more concerned with his complex relationship with his homeland, he tells Philip Leone-Ganado

Photography by Nicky Scicluna

At the start of Alex Vella Gera’s new novel, Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, Richard returns to his native Malta by boat. It is the mid-1980s, and Richard’s return signifies the final stage of a plot to assassinate Dom Mintoff. But as the boat inches closer to Malta, Richard’s thoughts are not on the man he is planning to murder. Instead, his eyes fix on his fellow passengers, his compatriots:

“Mill-ewwel daqqa t’għajn stajt tobsor li kienu Maltin tipiċi, neqsin minn ċertu intelliġenza, goffi. Bħat-tfal jagħmlu…Moħħom fix-xiri, u l-parteġġjanezmu miskin. Moħħom fil-festa. Poplu ta’ tfal. Poplu ta’ mogħoz.”

It is not a pleasant verdict, but perhaps his author would empathise with the direction of his thoughts. Just as Richard finds his attention drawn to the state of his countrymen, Vella Gera found, as the novel grew and developed in his mind, that its focus shifted gradually from the would-be assassin to his son Noel, and his present-day attempts to come to terms with his roots, his identity and his country. A further comparison is merited: like his protagonist Noel, Vella Gera, born and bred in Malta, is no longer resident here. Instead, he lives and works in Brussels, as a translator with the European Union.

Against the background of these parallels, then, I wonder whether Vella Gera shares with Richard his harsh assessment of the Maltese people.

“No,” he says, “but only because unlike him, I have a lot of compassion for humanity. I’m very happy I’m Maltese, but I know I can’t live in Malta, or I’d be a very angry man. Whenever I’ve lived here I’ve started hating everyone and everything.”

This dissatisfaction has taken Vella Gera far afield, travelling widely and living in London and Prague before settling in Brussels. As often happens, those travels helped him begin to come to terms with his Maltese identity. It was in Prague, for example, that he first began writing in Maltese, realising that having his own language was an integral part of who he was. But the separation also had a more profound effect on him. “Because I lived abroad, I began to see Malta from a distance,” he says. “But because I was born here and my formative years were spent here, my roots are here. So I’m seeing my own roots from a distance, and that can be quite disturbing.”

As a result, Vella Gera shares with his characters a strong sense of exile, of a Malta fundamentally opposed to the outside world, and of which he is not really a part. This, he remarks with a wry smile, is slowly becoming an obsession.

“I’m obsessed with this idea of a Maltese leaving and returning, of the outsider. I have this notion of Malta being a continent unto itself, a land of the dead.”

Not that he is the first author to grapple with these questions. As far back as 1930, Juann Mamo’s Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka was looking satirically at the experience of emigration. Another classic, Guze Ellul Mercer’s Leli ta’ Haz-Zghir, dealt with the protagonist’s failed attempts to come to terms with Malta and transcend the petty village mentality, while on stage, last year’s Francis Ebejer Prize-winning play Kjaroskur, written by Simone Spiteri, had as its core a fraternal relationship strained by the decision of one of the brothers to abandon Malta for an artistic haven abroad.

Vella Gera is well aware that he is taking on a theme that has troubled Maltese authors for generations. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the problem is a national preoccupation.  So does Sriep bring something new to the table? “Books like Samuraj and Il-Gagga are all about young Maltese men trying to escape, and it always ends badly. I tried to make the ending more positive.” But once again, he found his roots coming back to haunt him.

“It’s hard. You feel drawn towards making it end badly. The draw is within us: the Maltese school-mistress, always admonishing.Malta is not just a country; it’s a state of mind. Writing about it is an attempt to escape from it, which is the same as escaping from Malta.”

What is this state of mind? Vella Gera doesn’t answer immediately, but with the ease of a natural storyteller, launches into an account of an experience he had while living in Prague. One night, he recalls, walking in the city centre, he saw a group of tourists, and realised that they were Maltese – “you know how it is, Maltese recognise each other just from the way they walk.” Without announcing his presence, he pulled down his hood and, for no particular reason, started following them from a distance. Trailed by a suspicious-looking figure at night in a foreign city, the group were unsurprisingly spooked, and hurried away. At this point Vella Gera pauses, as if searching for the words to bring the story home:

“I was just enjoying the fact that they were scared of me. Perhaps I’m crazy, but that’s my Maltese state of mind: despising my countrymen and wanting to give them a scare.”

Parts of Sriep are set in modern-day Brussels, and although the author insists that this is not fundamentally a “Brussels novel” (“that still has to be written”), it is still noteworthy as one of the first real written accounts of the new diaspora: the some 250 Maltese people in the EU-hub. But Vella Gera is unwilling to generalise, or to ascribe any social or historiographic responsibility to his novel. The consequences on the national psyche of a sizable community living in such a vibrant and multicultural city are yet to be explored. Moreover, he admits that as a family man, he is not particularly involved with the Maltese community.

“Brussels is a strange city. It has many different identities. I know some Maltese who have seen all the different aspects of the city, others who just live in the suburbs.”

And yet, there is a sense that the feelings he and his characters talk about are not unique to him. “My impression is that the Maltese community is not very close. They don’t meet much, and they’ll sometimes go out of their way not to meet each other. Perhaps that’s the equivalent of my hood in Prague- just a more sophisticated way of doing it.”