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MALTATODAY 14 August 2022

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14 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 14 AUGUST 2022 NEWS JAMES DEBONO READING through the live blogs and news reports as events unfolded in December 2019 already felt like reading an unfolding horror novel. And the squalid protagonists revolving around the Daphne murder plot and the various corruption spin-offs from Pan- amagate have now taken a life of their own as deformed and grotesque caricatures already magnified in Caruana Galizia's blog. Mark Camilleri, a former chairman of the National Book Council and a historian, was one of the few voices in Labour openly calling for the resig- nation of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi as early as 2016 but he remained fiercely 'loyal' to the party, even supporting it in the 2017 general election, until he was axed from his po- litical appointment by the new Abela administration. He has now taken up the challenge of an opportunity glaring in the face of any Maltese author will- ing to dive into the mire: that of constructing a pop novel based on these bizarre events. In his first novel Camilleri does so with gusto in an im- perfect, unpretentious and un- forgiving piece of pulp fiction revolving around the life of a grotesque and obese IT pro- fessional called Dustin, whose life is "synchronized" with Malta's history to the extent that even his unhealthy eating habits were conditioned by his liberation from the Mintoffian austerity imposed by his moth- er, as the country gorged itself in the consumerism unleashed by the liberalisation of markets under the PN. But his mediocre life also in- tersects with the Muscat era, through Dustin's brief and pornographic encounter with Polly. For here is Mark Camilleri's magic trick: his characters are transposed directly from polit- ical reality with little effort to disguise them. They are easi- ly recognisable public figures. 'Polly' is obviously Labour MP and former Parliamentary Sec- retary Rosianne Cutajar, 'Der- rick Tigiegu' is Electrogas boss Yorgen Fenech, 'Keith' is Keith Schembri and the 'King' is Jo- seph Muscat. And even Mark Camilleri slips himself in the plot as a mean-hearted publisher who frustrates Dustin's dream of recognition as a poet in his bid to charm the opposite sex, on- ly to compromise his profes- sional integrity for the greater good by exchanging Ġaħan's treasure trove of chats between Polly and Derrick in return for publishing Dustin's bad poetry. This literary stratagem en- ables Camilleri the historian with the opportunity of forg- ing his own primary source, one which obviously makes caricatures of public figures which already exist as carica- tures in the public psyche. In doing so he captures the tes- tosterone-charged zeitgeist of the Muscat era. How accurate Camilleri is in presenting a glimpse into this world of po- litical intrigue is arguable and can never be verified. Yet the conversation between Keith, Derrick and 'il-King' sounds as plausible as Paolo Sorrentino's Andreotti monologues. "Just leave everything in my hands and don't worry about that piece of shit," Derrick told Keith and the King in a club in Portomaso. "But that reas- surance kept on ringing in the King's mind… in the depths of his soul and mind and in his dreams. For although he con- sciously tried to bury it, the consequence of leaving the matter in the hands of a coke- head kept haunting his subcon- scious which kept reminding him that the air was pregnant with blood." It is a scenario probably con- jured by many of us in our pri- vate thoughts and Camilleri has documented this sensation giving it a semblance of reality. Still there are pitfall in Camill- eri's use of literature to make a political point. For Polly's ma- jor contribution to the plot is her willingness to let Ġaħan lick her asshole in exchange for his services as a website cre- ator. And while – in real life – Rosianne Cutajar's fate was sealed by her involvement in a property deal with Fenech ex- posed by MaltaToday – by pre- senting Polly as a woman who uses her body to get what she wants, Camilleri is indulging in the narrative of right-wing conservatives who relished in slut-shaming Cutajar. In the world-view of people like De Gabriele – another fictional character in Camilleri's novel – it is moral degeneration which is the roots of all evil. But noth- ing could be more distant from Camilleri's libertarian outlook to life. Still, Camilleri's depiction of Polly is more grotesque than sexist, drawing on a popular culture where political satire also taps into the erotic realm to punch harder. Even in Italy it was reports on 'bunga-bun- ga' parties – and not decades of journalistic and judicial inves- tigations of mafia connections – which brought about the end of Silvio Berlusconi's dominion over Italian politics. Yet by going down this road, Camilleri consciously drinks from a poisoned well. For while Camilleri's book has literary merits, people are also reading it to get a glimpse of the Muscat era provided by someone who gives the impres- sion that he was "in the know", even if one doubts how close he even ever got to the impenetra- ble inner circle of Castille. Lit- erature gives Camilleri the po- litical intellectual/activist the poetic license to say things that can't be expressed in prose. One may feel uncomfortable with aspects of Camilleri's pro- tagonism, including his notori- ous habit of picking unsolicited fights against so-called apolo- gists from the academic field, but it is equally ridiculous to label Camilleri as a reaction- ary. His portrait of the fictional judge Degabriele, stands out as a brilliant depiction of retro- grade Maltese conservatism of which Camilleri remains a firm opponent. Moreover the book is not about Polly. Polly is probably inserted there to help Camill- eri sell more books. It is about Dusti – a dialectical Ġaħan who merges proletarian and bourgeois traits and is capa- ble of profound reflections Gahan fl-Aqwa Zmien: a caricature of the Muscat era Mark Camilleri drinks from the deep and rich well of Mediterranean folklore in which Ġaħan often challenges popular common sense. And effectively, he forges a Ġaħan with which the bourgeois audience can identify but also a national popular character reminiscent of Paolo Villaggio's Fantozzi

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