Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh by the lovely-lovely-lovely Clare Azzopardi – Oh my. This book. I read (DEVOURED) it last weekend and adored it. If you can read Maltese, READ THIS BOOK. So good. I haven’t read a huge tonne of books in Maltese ... but THIS BOOK. It might be my top favourite Maltese book ever - Claire Bonello on Claire's online Chronicles
Kulħadd ħalla isem warajh
This new book of short stories confirms Clare Azzopardi as a leader among contemporary writers of Maltese fiction and, I suspect, the most perceptive and stylistically distinguished short story writer in this country I have ever read.
Azzopardi tells her stories in different modes. Sandra, for instance, the first and certainly most amusing of the collection, is narrated in the first person, allowing the reader to look somewhat deeper inside the protagonist's mind and emotions than we are allowed to do in the other stories, all of which raise doubts about motivation or even the facts narrated. For instance, Margaret, where the protagonist is a nun , is told in a series of short sections, the first being the significant occasion when the postulant Margaret is given her name in religion of Sister Michael, signalling the beginning of her exile from normal womanhood, the last being the day of her funeral, when the only real mourning is marked by a tear shed by the Mother of the Convent. Again, Gracey's story is not told directly but through the extraordinary experience of another woman.
In most of the stories Azzopardi describes a number of objects bearing the letters "pdm" scratched on them. The mystery is cleared in the last story, Polly, about a small, ugly woman with arms of different lengths, who carries a pipe which she smokes regularly, and who is obsessed with the charismatic Labour leader Dom Mintoff, the only love of her life, at whose funeral she weeps bitterly. Polly has had an illegitimate child taken from her by her angry father at its birth and she has deeply been impressed by Mintoff's radical social changes and scorn for the nations who ruled Malta politically and culturally in the past. Azzopardi does not, I think, believe much in symbols but perhaps she wants us to see Polly as representing many women living in great poverty in one of those miserable apartments or houses Azzopardi depicts so skilfully, who saw Mintoff as their saviour.
Remarkably, Azzopardi devotes the last three pages of her story to listing the multiple places on which Polly has inscribed her graffito "pdm" (surely standing for "Polly Dom Mintoff") She has taken a risk here, and it pays off. The story is certainly the most remarkable literary monument I know to all those many little people for whom Mintoff made Malta a country to which they felt they could belong, reminding us how the emotions Mintoff inspired continue to affect all our lives.
The first story in the collection could not be more different than the last. Sandra is highly sexed and this, coupled with her great ego, makes her use a little implement, a key - to her diary, maybe, but more often to her home - to lure first boys, later men to her bed. Her well-planned placing of a key leads to the domestic disgrace of her sister or to a rival girl's thinking it is Sandra who is beloved and not her, and later it is used to make a desired male aware of Sandra's eagerness to be his. Narrated in the first person the story is not meant by Azzopardi as a condemnation of Sandra, but then the author always stays well away from explicit condemnation or praise.
Azzopardi writes very well about the little people in society. Rita, for instance, is about a middle-aged woman from Sliema living in London with her Gozitan husband who is unemployed and does nothing but watch telly while she works as a "dinner lady" in a school. Her speech is a mixture of Maltese and English and certainly never refined: "Għamiltu l-washin?" or "ilbies taċ-cheap" are typical while "innit" comes up again and again at phrase ends. She and Salvu are not happy, but Malta and Gozo are not places they yearn for as both his people and hers have been ungenerous to them. When Rita gets a phone call saying that her father has died it does not take Salvu long to dissuade her from flying out to Malta. The couple's economic exile has now become a psychological one.
Gozo, the little hamlet of San Blas in particular, plays a much more important role in Roża. Here the woman and mother has remained in San Blas while her husband has gone to find employment in England whence he returns after many years, dying not long after. Eleven years later, the woman, who has never written to her husband before, writes a whole series of letters addressed to her dead husband at his last English address, and prepares herself for her own death by making a whole series of dresses in one of which she wants to be buried. Then her letters are brought back to her by the English couple who have received them - together with a postcard bearing an affectionate message written by her husband but, for some reason, never posted to her. The Modigliani painting illustrated on the card suggests to her another dress that she now secretly makes, but she ends up buried in one of the other dresses. Her dream of being reunited with him wearing that special dress has been thwarted. It is a story told unsentimentally by Roża's granddaughter, but it may touch your heart as it touched mine.
Lily, with its story of a woman's morbid obsession about her childhood home, an obsession that leads her to a progressive abandonment of her career and of much of her previous personal life as she keeps a constant watch on the house, is a story in which Azzopardi makes us puzzle if all that the woman sees and hears about the new inhabitants of the house is purely in her mind, or paranormal. At the end, when the woman has become a psychological wreck, Azzopardi cleverly puts a doubt in our mind as the woman sees on TV news a picture of a Russian woman found dead in Sliema who looks like a girl the woman is sure she has seen at the house.
In Gracey the paranormal is suggested more clearly. Helen, an assistant in a shoe shop run by two now elderly middle-class sisters, Bice and Bonnie, sells an old-fashioned pair of shoes to a badly-dressed woman, who pays her in British pounds. On going to Gracey's dreary home in the slummy Eagle Street, Valletta, which does not look lived in, Helen learns that Gracey has known Helen's employers many years before when they were habitues of a dancing venue in Strait Street, and were at one time rivals for the affection of a handsome American. Later Helen learns from her employers that Gracey, whom they well remembered, had died many years before, slashed to death by an American... It is a chilling story that could well be chosen for a good collection of contemporary ghost stories.
Camilla goes to live in Naxxar when her Maltese lover one day throws her out and her possessions from their home in Senglea. Her story is told by a Naxxar woman who helps her keep the house clean and tidy, and the amusing style she uses is that of a chatty gossip whose scandalous tales of Camilla's life style are very doubtful. Camilla sleeps by day and writes by night, but she is rumoured to be a second Rapunzel, lowering her long hair from her window up which her lovers can climb up. Some also report that she has killed her former lover, leaving his dismembered corpse outside her house. Now Camilla has disappeared. Surely she stands for all those unusual foreigners who end up as creatures of myth in this country.
This is a collection to be read by all those who are still convinced that none of our authors can write as well as some of the best English and American short story writers.
Tales of Imagination and some Mystery - A review by Paul Xuereb - The Malta Independent on Sunday, 13th April 2014
Feminist literature has a bit of a scary ring to it, so I am quite wary of using this label. However, Clare Azzopardi’s Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh, fits the description perfectly, because it is feminist literature as it should be done. Azzopardi’s latest book is a collection of short stories that celebrates women in the best way possible… women in all their diverse personalities, backgrounds, foibles and loves.
Azzopardi’s is a collection of tales that is linked together by one element – the strong personalities of the protagonists. This is a novel way of telling us stories about women, not only because of content and plot – although those, too, are charming, intriguing and exciting in turns, depending on the individual story , but also because of the way the prose is presented.
Azzopardi’s pen is an easy and flowing one, and she makes our task of picturing the women she writes about easy. Each story is named after the woman it celebrates. Not every heroine is likeable, and some may even qualify as anti-heroines.
There’s Sandra, for instance, whose manipulative nature is positively scary. She traps men with the simple expedient of leaving her key lying around. But then she disposes of them just as easily.
And there’s Rita, her of the depressive lifestyle, who makes us think of so many of our acquaintances, trapped in a routine they can’t esape from, the most exciting happenings in their lives being funerals.
A collection of tales that is linked together by one element… the strong personalities of the protagonists
Gracey brings in a touch of the supernatural, an unexpected surprise that somehow works well even in the context of the rest of the tales. Possibly, this is because Azzopardi’s style is so matter-of-fact, so conversational, that everything is believable.
Azzopardi’s collection has many a poignant moment, perhaps none so strong as in Roża, a story with a decidedly chilling introduction that describes that life of a woman who is already dead, while she is still living… a story of a woman for whom the question of what clothes to be buried in became as important as life itself.
My own personal favourite is Lily, a highly contemporary tale with a strong dose of nostalgia and a killer ending. The way the story progresses from a purely warm account of a woman’s love for her childhood home, to her rising obsession with this old home is masterful – the introduction of a more sinister element closes the story most unexpectedly.
I found Camilla’s story equally entertaining. Azzopardi switches between different narrators in a very deft manner. Every narrator brings with them a new style of dialogue, so that you could almost hear the different protagonists in the story talking to you directly. And they also bring a new point of view about the person they talk about, the ultimate heroine – and victim, in many ways – of the story. You could say that Camilla is a very subtle indictment of the uncharitableness and the eagerness to gossip of our society.
And then there’s Margaret, the nun, a bittersweet take on life at a Church school and Polly, another indictment of the coldness of our society, only too ready to emarginate anyone who doesn’t fit the mould.
You could say that emarginisation is a common theme to all of Azzopardi’s stories. None of the women are your run-of-the-mill characters. They are strong, strange, obsessive, stubborn, yes, but never ordinary. And when placed in an ordinary, everyday setting the strength and attraction of their personality can’t but shine through.
Azzopardi’s book might not be the militantly feminist prose that we associate with the term. It is certainly, however, a tribute to real women.
A review by Ramona Depares on The Sunday Times of Malta
You know those Romantics; always bitching at each others’ throats. For instance Keats, who didn’t like Coleridge much because he believed that he valued knowledge over beauty. Keats, for one, didn’t, and he married both splendidly in what at the time passed for #coleridgesucks: a letter. On the 21st of December 1817, he wrote to his two brothers:
‘… it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature… I mean Negative Capability… when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…’
What Man is capable of being, Woman can be too, and this is where, ladies and gentleman, Clare Azzopardi comes in.
For those of you who don’t know her, Ms Azzopardi is one of the most prolific writers on the island. At 37 years of age she has novels, short stories, poems, plays, picture books, textbooks and workbooks under her belt. She is a veritable writing machine, one that, luckily for us, produces quality in quantity.
The eight stories featured in her latest anthology, Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh, all carry a female name: “Sandra”, “Rita”, “Gracey”, “Roża”, “Lily”, “Margaret”, “Camilla” and “Polly”. Being female and being Maltese are two motifs close to Ms Azzopardi’s heart. She speaks about women, articulating their concerns, their anxieties, their joys and their disappointments. Her voice is decidedly female (which one must not assume simply by virtue of her sex) and the landscapes she paints, both interior and exterior, are definitely Maltese.
However this is not a book with a militant feminist agenda as perceived through a Maltese lens. Not at all. Ms Azzopardi’s characters are vessels and/or allegories that seek higher truths than those espoused by allosomes and citizenship, focusing on images, concepts and ideas that speak to us as human beings. They ask questions without insulting us with answers; or, as the physician poet put it, ‘uncertainties, mysteries and doubts’.
Rumour is a recurrent motif in Ms Azzopardi’s anthology. Whether it stems from neighbourly gossip, a personal grudge or an unresolved past, it acts as a catalyst that instigates and accentuates an obsessive drive towards establishing a self.
We never meet the titular character in “Camilla” but yet her presence, part spectral and part vampiric, is everpresent. We get to know her intimately through hearsay; everyone knows everything and nothing about her and, just like death, whose agent she seems to be (she wrote epitaphs when she was alive), she ubiquitously possesses the lives of the people who come in contact with her or her mythos.
“Lily” is another case in point. Here we have an Austerian tale (as in Paul Auster) in which Claudine, seemingly free of her past, haunts the neighbourhood where she grew up. Her obsession with her former house and its present tenants reaches absurdist proportions until it finally tears apart the very fabric of her being. She dissolves right in front of our eyes, becoming little more than a whisper trapped inside a gaol of her own devise.
Or maybe not. Maybe Claudine is the creation of the house she once inhabited.
Dealing in uncertainties is not the same as being vague. It’s taking one chilling step after another, on a very very fine line that divides the known from the unknown, the truths from the untruths, the two sides of the same coin. Think of it as a gentle murmur, a pale area of liminality. This is the place that “Gracey”, “Rita”, “Sandra” and the others inhabit, a world where people have a name but not a self, ensnared within a spatio-temporal loop that is fed by the shackling dictates of fate. Choices and conundrums abound but the difficulty of committing oneself, sometimes to taking a leap of faith, holds them back from beginning a new life, bettering the one that they have.
Maybe it’s too early in the year to commit myself but I’m taking the plunge: Ms Azzopardi, with Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh, has raised the local literary stakes very high and it’s going to be extremely hard to top this one.
This Woman Knows: A review by Noel Tanti. on Malta Today
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