It’s commonly said that new authors find it extremely hard to ‘break’ into a market, dominated as it is by the literary behemoths. Of course though, at best this is an over-simplification. And a convenient one at that.
Established authors sell more, and more reliably. But a good part of this is traceable to their track record and to the hard work they’d have put in over the years. On the other hand, a look at Maltese bookshelves in recent years should be enough to reassure any budding author. A new generation of writers has come through that is refreshing the blood supply to the local literary scene. Many of today’s heavyweights were not around even just ten years ago.
The latest literary debutant is Donovan Gatt, 25 years old, whose collection of short stories Six-pack u sonża has just been published by Merlin Publishers. Gatt’s is a young new voice in the mix, merging an uncompromising use of language with a refined ear for narrative and dialogue.
The direct – at times extreme – language and situations depicted by Gatt are obvious from the word go. The very first page is a surreal snapshot of Michelangelo’s David having sex with the Fat Lady. From there, it goes on to a series of stories where – when needed – explicit scenes are not edited out or glossed over. In Vitella, a story about a Juventus-loving cannibal who meets his victims through personal adverts, the protagonist gets his sexual gratification through child porn.
And yet, Six-pack u sonża is not about shocking the reader. In a time of renewed censorship attempts in the local arts scene, Gatt says what he set out to say, without forced explicitness but equally without blunting the edges where necessary.
Amazingly for a young, debut author, Gatt has a knack for narrative form and technique, and an understanding of the quirks of human nature. At times raw, and with scope for maturity and focus in places, Gatt’s writing is an extremely interesting addition to the local scene.
Chris Gruppetta, Director of Publishing at Merlin, commented that “collections of short stories are a particularly risky genre – commercially speaking – and we are always extremely hesitant when accepting a manuscript of short stories for publication. However Six-pack u sonża was a different voice, and we firmly believe in this young author’s potential to evolve, mature and become a very exciting addition to the Merlin list of authors.”
One of the stories in the collection, Il-bidwija tal-friex, has been available online for free reading, and is accessible through Merlin’s Facebook page.
Six-pack u sonża is out now and is available from all bookshops in Malta and Gozo. More information is available from the publishers on firstname.lastname@example.org
Six-pack u sonża, young author Donovan Gatt’s debut, is Marmite literature through and through: you can love it and enthuse about it to all your friends, or you can hate it and just not ‘get’ it. But you won’t be merely indifferent to it.
Some books do that – the style is so particular that it’s not easily categorisable. The “if you liked A, you’ll like this” analogy doesn’t really work here. You have to give the book a try, and taste for yourself. Just like Marmite.
The stories in Six-pack u sonża range from the overtly sexual, to the dark and dangerous, to the naughty, to the surreal. From the very first page, Gatt makes it clear where he stands and the eponymous six-pack u sonża is a challenge to ‘love-or-hate’ his writing: a micro-scene of Michelangelo’s David having sweaty sex with the Fat Lady. ’nuff said.
Maltese obsessions and idiosyncracies feature heavily in Gatt’s stories: the parallel universe that are private lessons, seen through the eyes of a latter-day would-be Don Giovanni; the providers of accommodation for summer students here to learn English; the whore’s love triangle; the disquieting dentist; the politics of canine mating; hold-ups; the aħna ħbieb tal-Ministru mentality; the paedophile priest. It’s all there.
The cover (designed by Pierre Portelli) is a clear pointer to the explicitness of the novel – as is the warning on the back cover. In an age where all has been done, written and read, and audiences are no longer shocked at anything (current censorship debate aside), Gatt does not seek to shock for the sake of it, but unshackles himself from any self-censorship and in so doing delivers a gutsy no-holds-barred read. Six-pack u sonża is definitely not one for the impressionable, both in terms of content and graphic scenes, and of use of Maltese expletives where necessary in their Malti pur glory. Conversations between characters are retold just as they would be overheard in the street, without any euphemisms or asterisks.
Vitella, for example, is the story of a cannibal – a Juventus fan who lives and works with his mum – who trawls the internet for dates-turned-victims. Loosely based on a true story, this is one of the grittiest stories, yet explores territories not often covered in local literature.
L-Isqof Niġerjan is an equally unsettling story about a Nigerian amputee bishop, whose severed limb reveals some uncomfortable hidden truths. The surgeon and the anaesthesist become recipients of an involuntary confession of sorts. Yet again, Gatt does not shy away from tackling complicated and taboo issues, but always does so with a clarity of purpose that belies his young age.
Other stories, such as xejnsewdottkom, take a lighter approach and make for great interludes. There is, as publishers Merlin state on the cover blurb, “storja għal kulħadd” (there’s a story for everyone’s tastes).
As with many of the sharpest authors, what highlights Gatt’s talent – copious if at times raw – is his observation of the world around him, of the tiny details that make us tick as individuals, of the character flaws that shape who we are. A good number of the characters in the stories of Six-pack u sonża will remain with the reader for a good while after turning the last page of the book. Six-pack u sonża is Gatt’s debut but will certainly not be the last we’ve heard of this author.