(Sunday Times of Malta review)
Mass sterilisation, rape, teen sex – Simon Bartolo’s new novel bravely grapples with taboos and difficult subjects. Having read a pre-publication copy of Deformity, Veronica Stivala learns how the author draws the line with teenage fiction.
Paradoxically, although Simon Barolo is quiet and soft-spoken, his novels and plays are bold and daring. In 2005, Bartolo wrote an unusual and dark play about conjoined twins who fall in love with the same man. He went on to direct the play, called Drowning Lilies, which, as one would expect was visually disturbing but which made one think.
Six years later, the author has mixed into his new creation a juicy number of thought-provoking ingredients. Deformity is a dystopian novel that takes place in England 2111. Although set on Earth, the world has changed following the ‘Great Flood’ and the sun no longer shines in the sky. Children know only the grey skies, and the sole way they can experience the blue-sky world is through films.
Echoing other futuristic novels such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Children of Men, Deformity tells of a country where the authorities control its citizens’ reproductive process. At age 16, boys have to undergo a vasectomy, following the collection of three sperm deposits.
The aim behind this is so the government will be able to produce an enhanced race; Hitler’s vision of creating a perfect race rings loudly. One is also reminded of the controlled sex games in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the totalitarian state of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and the mass infertility in P. D. James’s The Children of Men.
An avid reader of futuristic and dystopian literature, Bartolo admits he must have been influenced by these novels, “but only in a general way”. He explains how he didn’t set out to emulate Orwell’s masterpiece. Interestingly, just after he finished the final rewrite of Deformity he read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. He was shocked, and also pleased, by certain similarities in the subject matter.
Indeed, the theme of loss can be traced throughout both Bartolo’s and Ishiguoro’s novels. Interestingly, many of Bartolo’s stories and plays deal with the loss of a parent or lover. For example, the twins in Drowning Lilies are torn apart from their beau, and the play Loss portrays a widow dealing with the difficult process of grief. Was there a conscious decision behind this loss motif?
Nothing conscious, admits Bartolo, though he does continue: “I’m afraid it might be the scar left by my father’s death.”
To better explain the permanent scar death leaves, the author quotes aptly from Deformity:
“The departure of our loved ones deals such a heavy blow that it marks us permanently. The more grief and anger we are dealt during our lifetime, the more bent out of shape we become, until our beating heart is just a shadow of what it once was. We might have been holding on to someone, clinging fiercely, not wanting to let go. Death, however, shows no mercy. She ignores us and brazenly pulls the other away… It marks us. Forever.”
Despite this bleak, yet honest picture of the ending of a life that Bartolo portrays, he balances it out with new life and regeneration in Deformity.
Speaking of new life, of new lives, I am curious to find out how Bartolo so cleverly portrays the thoughts of a 15-year-old boy.
The man is downright honest in his reply: “My insecurities and uncertainties take care of that. It is the frame of mind of a 43-year-old man that I have problems with! I had hoped I’d be much more sure of myself by now. Instead, I think it’s great to lose myself in somebody else, living so far away in the future. I just hope I do my teenage readers justice.”
On the subject of his teenage readers, we discuss the graphic scenes in Deformity that contain strong sexual content such as teenage rape. How does Bartolo know where to draw the line as to how explicit, or not, to be when writing for teenagers?
When he catches himself cringing, the writer stops and crosses out the last sentence he’s written. He’s quite squeamish and not at all given to the enjoyment of violent literature.
That said, he does believe there needs to be a certain level of explicit action to get the message across, and to make readers feel for and with the victim: “None of the sex or rape scenes are depicted fully. I do not dwell upon them.”
In fact, there are gaps or the scene just stops, and then we read about the negative effects later in the book. When Bartolo feels there is enough detail to help readers empathise with the victim, he stops describing.
However, he does not believe in writing down to teenagers: “I would probably have done exactly the same if I’d been writing an adult book.”
Bartolo’s writing flows beautifully from one sentence to another, each adjective, each location name (Catastrophe Hill, Dryzone) carefully thought out. Although his writing is clearly wrought with so much care, the author surprisingly admits he does not always have time to write during the week – his day job as a translator makes him forget most of the morning’s thoughts – so in the weekend he writes whatever he salvages from his memory.
“I always tell myself that whatever has been saved must be the strongest ideas and that makes me happy. Spending some time daily writing is much more productive and makes for a smoother text, without the creases that appear when I let my ideas dry out from one weekend to the next. Those creases are bitches to iron out.”
One finds it hard to believe Bartolo’s ideas could ever dry out. His next project is an intriguing self-conscious ghost story in Maltese, about the afterlife adventures of a girl who dies on the first page.
“I like to think it contains equal parts of comedy, drama and suspense. Death is a major theme again, but I’m hoping to make people laugh this time.”