Author Ġużè Stagno is caught comparing himself to Ernest Hemingway and James Blunt when David Schembri speaks to him about his latest book, What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels.
In the early 1930s, Juann Mamo published his satire of Maltese migration, Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka, juxtaposing Maltese village psyche with the wider world they were moving into. Over 80 years later, Ġużè Stagno has taken the denizens of Labour każini around the country and plonked them into his equivalent of Mamo’s Amerka – Brussels, capital of the EU.
The particular cohort he picks out for satirising is possibly the ripest for parody – What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels follows MaltaNews journalist Gustav Azzopardi, as he accompanies a group of Laburisti on a tour of Brussels and the European Parliament organised by the journalist-turned-MEP Charlo Pulis. In this book, the result is a bit like taking fish fingers out of the freezer, throwing them into an aquarium and expecting them to swim; it just doesn’t happen.
There to observe this is the sardonic Gustav, whom Stagno uses “to a certain extent” as his mouthpiece.
“The book is about personal and political betrayal on one level, and about the Maltese idiot abroad on another. Why did I choose this topic? Because I thought it was a good topic and a nice change from the usual Marsaxlokk working-class families crap. I wrote three books about that,” Stagno says.
The Maltese diaspora working for EU institutions has been described in Brikkuni’s song Brussell as “pseudo artists, writers and politicians” who left the island to cash in fat cheques. The Merlin Publishers stable is hardly bereft of émigrés – authors Pierre J. Mejlak, Simon Bartolo, Loranne Vella and Alex Vella Gera all earn their crust working for EU institutions. Prior to the publication of WHIBSIB David Friggieri, himself based in Brussels, has recently suggested the time was ripe to acknowledge the “Brussels School” of Maltese writers; Stagno believes this “school”, if indeed we could call it that, was wrought of a dearth of opportunities more than anything else.
“When I first met Vella Gera in the mid-noughties he was pushing pens at Yellow Pages. I was doing the same at Maltacom. Then we joined the EU, and a whole series of opportunities presented themselves to us. Most people took the chance faster than you could say concours,” Stagno, who works as an interpreter says.
“Think about it: I was not good enough to get a promotion as executive secretary at Maltacom – a position that, if I remember correctly, required only an interview and one measly A level – but did manage to pass a much harder EU exam. What does that tell you about the system in Malta? We’re the brain drain that happened to Malta after we joined the Union. And who can blame us for leaving? Brown-nosers and ħbieb tal-ħbieb get to hog the best places, locally: I should know, I spent a decade working for a parastatal company. My immediate superior could barely switch on his computer, for example. Why was he in a higher grade? Want to hazard a guess? At least with the EU there’s real meritocracy involved. We’re not the lucky few, as some people call us: rather the opposite. We’re the unlucky few who had to leave in order to make something of ourselves. And to add insult to injury, many people think we got the job through our imaginary connections,” Stagno says.
The latter is part of the wisdom spewed by the “idiots abroad” in Stagno’s book, who are racist and homophobic to boot. At one point, they surmise that one of the reasons people move to Brussels is to live out their gay lifestyles. “It’s the kind of thing people would say, isn’t it?” Stagno says. “Like the racist remarks that appear elsewhere in the novel. Actually, I’m surprised that people haven’t commented more about the racist aspect… especially considering the recent pushback furore.”
Given the characters he chose, it is no surprise that that dialogue is, to put it one way, colourful. Furthermore, Stagno’s register throughout the book is closer to spoken Maltese than many other literary works, and as such borrows many words from neighbouring languages.
“There is a marked difference between this one and Ramon on the one hand, and the first two novels on the other. Back when I started I was more hung-up about using ‘proper’ Maltese: whatever that is. But nowadays if a sentence like ‘… Sant iqanżah tbissima at gunpoint’ comes to me, I am not going to spend an hour and several posts on (Facebook group) Kelmet il-Malti trying to come up with the Maltese equivalent of ‘at gunpoint’. If it sounds good, I’ll use it. Even more so if it’s dialogue. As for the Latinate words, that’s another thing that has brought me immeasurable amounts of freedom. Who says I can’t use ‘riluttanti’, for example? If Italians can say ‘riluttante’ and the English can say ‘reluctant’ then I certainly can say ‘riluttanti’ too, especially when an exact equivalent doesn’t exist in the vernacular.”
Would-be readers might be somewhat put off to hear that the book has no less than 168 chapters. They are still, however, spread over 300 pages and some chapters barely fill a page. Why on earth does he do that?
“Why on earth not? I simply hate long chapters, both as a reader and also as a writer. Novels like Sebald’s Austerlitz, with its never-ending chapters and paragraphs are a nightmare as far as I’m concerned.
“My editor asked me the same question, actually. ‘Why do you have so many chapters?’ But as I said, why not?”
The same logic doesn’t apply to his choice of protagonists, who have been resolutely male. What would it take for Stagno to write in a female protagonist?
“I am simply not interested in writing about female protagonists,” the author replies. “And besides, I am not sure if I could pull it off. I am a one-trick pony that way, like Hemingway.Oh well.”
Another thing he will never do is write a rumanz – as opposed to the “rumanzi pop” he calls his works. “Will I ever write a rumanz? No. Pop literature is what I do: it’s like asking James Blunt whether he’ll eventually pen a symphony.”
What happens in Brussels is interspersed with Jimmy Grima’s illustrations. “I always thought that Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to Hunter S. Thompson’s books were cool. I wanted a little bit of that for What Happens in Brussels, and I thought that Jimmy’s style lent itself rather well to the tone of the book,” Stagno says. They certainly don’t seem to have harmed sales; at the time of writing the book had sold over 800 copies in less than a fortnight, which for a local work of fiction is remarkable.
The author seems to have found his niche in Maltese literature, which he carved out by being controversial. For instance, in his preface to his sophomore rumanz pop, Xemx Wisq Sabiħa Stagno describes himself as someone who hasn’t read Kundera, him of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Surely that has changed?
“I was already familiar with his work back then, and I might actually have enjoyed it too,” Stagno admits.
“The thing is, I used to say many things just to rock the boat a bit. Maltese literature back then was still like Amish country in many ways; and it was fun saying things one didn’t necessarily mean, as long as they offended the sensibilities of our literati. One bit from Kundera which I will always remember is Socrates’ putdown to Antisthenes: underneath your tattered clothes I can see your vanity. It’s from The Farewell Party if I remember correctly. Many people are like that, materially but also, I guess, intellectually.”
This article was originally published in The Sunday Times of Malta of October 20, 2013.
Why Stagno, round deux, I hear you ask? Because of Stagno, Round One, that’s why.