Merlin Publishers have continued to penetrate into the much-vaunted ‘Young Adult’ market with their latest title: Ivan Bugeja’s Ġimgħa, Sibt u Ħadd, released in book stores this week.
An uncompromising look at contemporary Paceville culture aimed at the exact demographic it offers a fictional depiction of, Bugeja's novel garnered Merlin's attention after its author - an accountant by profession - won last year's edition of the Teenage Literature Award (organised by the National Book Council together with Aġenzija Żgħażagħ).
The award was set up specifically to encourage young adult literature in Malta, of which there was felt to be a lack. The genre is currently one of the most successful international literary cash cows, as evinced by the success of properties like JK Rowling's Harry Potter and Stephanie Meyer's series of Twilight novels, to mention just a few.
However, Merlin's Director of Publishing Chris Gruppetta said that "Young Adult sales for Maltese literature are probably the lowest from all age brackets, adding that "the 'street cred' of a novel is of course crucial for the Young Adult market, as teens will not bother with anything they feel talks down to them, or talk beneath or above them.
"But also, there still is a higher resistance to reading in Maltese in the YA market than in other age groups. Progress is, however, being made. From Riħ Isfel to Sfidi, from the recent Deformity and Magna Mater to other Teenage Literature Award winners such as Rita Saliba's Inżul ix-Xemx, the YA in Maltese bookshelf is expanding," Gruppetta said.
Bugeja's novel tackles subject matter that is universal - if such a word can be used for our small island - to Maltese youth.
"It's an 'x-ray' of the teenage weekend world, and it's very much a reflection of the 2012 scene. As can be evinced from the title, the action happens mostly over one weekend - Friday night, Saturday and Sunday. Paceville, nightclubs, drinking, chatting up girls, gossip, BBQs... it's all there.
The story then takes a more dramatic turn with one of those sudden events that change one's life completely, irrevocably," Gruppetta added.
- Teodor Reljic
An initial look at the cover of Ivan Bugeja’s Ġimgħa Sibt u Ħadd, a first-prize winner in Konkors Letterarju għal Rumanzi għaż-Żgħażagħ, gives an indication of what the book is about: a series of snapshots capturing random instances from life in general. The narratives contained within give a sample of the daily occurrences for a number of people with their typical concerns.
Nothing really extraordinary happens; it’s just an ordinary life and an imperfect one for most. The book almost takes the format of a diary, but held by different characters.
In fact, it contains pictures, snippets of newspapers, calendar images and scribbles just as if it is a clippings folder bursting at the seams with the pulsing energy of youth and the angst that growing old entails.
It reminded me a lot of the TV series Seinfeld, which was proudly marketed as being about nothing because it merely depicted the daily existence of a group ofpeople whose lives intertwinedin hilarious and sometimes disastrous circumstances.
The book’s chapter headings are all labels that society uses on a daily basis to denote the passing of time; things like the days of the week, digital depictions of time and numeral representations of years.
It is as if the author did not want to separate the different moments in the book by chapter titles but desired to create the sensation of interconnected lives passing by. Average lives filled with the contrasts created through day-to-day existence: youth/old age, beauty/ugliness, self-pity/self-confidence, passivity/aggression, introversion/extroversion which basically address some of the main concerns in the unfolding of every human life.
So while on the surface this book appears to be just a fictitious anthropological survey of different strata of society, it manages togrip our attention through the underlying smouldering and explosion of emotions that accompanies all these growing-up and growing-old stories.
Interestingly, the author has chosen to underscore the headings and physically separate the occurrences through the use of Morse code symbols. Each heading, each interval is echoed through a Morse code which acts as a secret subtext within the narrative.
This code is made of a series of symbols which can be decoded by skilled listeners without the use of any equipment and can be measured in words by the minute.
Within the narrative, the use of this code seems to graphically represent the non-verbal encryptions characters are constantly sending to each other. These are silent messages of pain, desire, hate, fear and other emotions that humans emit through subtle cues than obvious words.
Inside the cast of characters there is a central need to be accepted: Ruth, with her surface snobbishness is hiding the pain of being invisible to her money-obsessed father; Isabelle has her father’s attention but suffers from body dysmorphic disorder as she desperately seeks a partner; Mark is the typical lost youth who spirals into oblivion as he lacks an inner core; Oliver and Conrad, the twins, who are victims of domestic violence but who try to live an ordinary life. The older generation is represented by Ġenju, Joe and to a certain extent, Caroline.
They are a cross-section of the young ones growing up and the old ones growing old in contemporary Malta. Their narratives unfold like a reality TV show for the readers to observe them like a group of disparate species living in an aquarium.
Underlying all these stories there is a vein of humour which somehow paralyses any empathy readers might feel for these characters but just leaves one with a sense of pity. The novel’s humour denotes a hint of the absurdity of life.
The book is a short read and flows with a rapid pace which has become necessary for today’s attention-challenged society. It will surely appeal to young adults as many will definitely identify with the younger characters and also because of its brevity.
It is also a good read for people who still find time to enjoy reading in Maltese. Such books prove that some local young contemporary writers certainly make Maltese literature proud and have produced works which definitely would have a wider audience if translated.
- Charles Sammut