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Il-Linja l-Ħadra


“Azzopardi’s ability to tell such unpredictable stories serves to further draw the reader’s attention to every word, every turn of events, and every snatch of dialogue that she elicits from the normal people, living at the turn of the 21st Century. Despite their meticulous organisation, these stories are far from stylised or excessively literary - quite the contrary ...” Adrian Grima


Merlin Publishers


National Book Prize - Best Short Stories


Pierre Portelli (cover)


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I, the witness

I, the witness

her body felt cumbersome pointless she was laughing and screaming and called andrè to tell him their marriage was destined to be no more than a pencilled scrawl but andrè didn’t understand and then fully clothed a drenched dance in the bathtub on the table on the couch on the windowsill where she munched on lots of carrots and felt her legs growing longer and touching the street below to the verses of carlos’s poems and all the feelings they engendered she flicked away borne on the ashes from a pack of twentytwenty fags’ worth of feeling had ebbed away by dusk and her legs dangling six storeys above street level hadn’t grown any longerwhere are they definitely had another pack maybe on the windowsill probably wondering whether or not to take the plunge or then again in the bath cleansing themselves of my sinsso she called them and prayed it wouldn’t be last night’s man at their endhelp me she told the tired voice. I wantI wantwhen she calmed down she fell asleep blanketed by the ash of burnt poems the smoke waking her up quite late the next morning to tap another dream into her laptop and that done it was her hair long strands of hair shorn off as she danced with the scissors among the wedding gifts from it seemed so long ago swaying as she had done that day glass of red in hand while she nibbled cauliflower blossoms which who knows might make the hair grow back in curls rose-scented with the memories of othertimeand then he turns up“The fuck’s going on? you out of your fucking mind? This place reeks of alcohol and what’s with all the hair? The fuck’s this all about?”Bang goes the fridge door.“Listen, you listen to me.”Bang goes the fridge door.“You do this one more time and I’ll fucking kill you.”the dress dangling from the ceiling slowly swung in the breeze airing out thirteen years’ worth of damp and mouldI was the witnessI’d just bent over to scrawl my presence at this lily-infested ritual in an abandoned chapel when I noticed that the pen’s blue trace was invisible on the paper the priest already blushing as I straightened up pen in surprised hand she naturally burst out laughing and then a rush to the sacristy and another pen this one just as hapless and following an urgent appeal from the lectern and the handbagged hands of women rustling finally pencil ok naturally she laughed even louder I was the first witness to sign in pencilI guess it’s lost what little colour it had so many years later and a marriage isn’t valid without a signature from the witness her laughter still rings in my ears but she probably doesn’t know that as when the photographer managed to freeze-frame my discoloured countenance against her radiant features bursting with sudden suppressed emotion engulfing her all at oncethey’ve been scattered all over the floor so many years latermoment by momentlike a trail of sequins falling one by one beneath the dress throughout the reception held on the tiny parapet because every other hall was booked on the day“Have you heard? He passed away this morning.”“Yes, I heard they’re burying him tomorrow.”“Don’t think I’ll go.”“Up to you really. You’re free as a wedding dress that was bought never to be worn.”“Everybody thought well of Patri Feliċ. He was humble as his sandal-clad feet.”“Wonder what his epitaph will read? Here lies the love that bound 33 couples all of whom have untied the knot.”There’s a little window in the front door you can spy through. That evening’s snatches of time, all laid to rest on the floor and she the guard, jealously keeping watch. She was completely out of control that night. Every moment, even the ones she’d wanted to keep for herself, had been captured by the photographer. Now it’s she who’s stopping the moments in their tracks.Because she wants to.I’d knock on the door, but my hands refuse to budge. I imagine her saying “Come on in and drop your signature, I like your signature.”They were clearly visible on the floor, laid to rest. You could see them all through the little window in the front door.The wedding dress dangles from a ceiling beam, and stares pointedly at me.The rope looks thick and heavy. Plaited, it reminds me of the one my father uses to lower the pail into the garden well. The freeze-framed faces on the floor are looking my way, calling to me to enter, drop a signature.I, the witness.Today, once more.The gentle current breezing in through the back is swinging her gently back and forth.I can’t get inside, the door is locked.I slip my hand into my pocket, without knowing why.

On reading the fiction of Clare Azzopardi

Review by
Albert Gatt
I think this refusal to “tell it straight” is a crucial aspect of Azzopardi’s fiction.

On reading the fiction of Clare Azzopardi


Overt engagement with the political is a risky strategy for an author. Perhaps an author’s main “responsibility” – possibly an objectionable term in this context – is toward the composition of her text. Otherwise, the writer of fiction risks taking on board the tired slogans that all too frequently characterise political debate, or adopting the convoluted jargon of academia. Such a self-conscious adoption of slogans or theories would narrow down the space of possible interpretations and “placements” of a text.

By a “placement”, I mean an interpretive action carried out by a reader who reads a fictional text in the light of a contemporary condition, rather as a small mirror is tilted this way and that in order to display, up close, this or that corner of a room.

Translating some of Clare Azzopardi’s recent work has allowed me to carry out this interpretive activity to a greater extent than would otherwise have been possible. This is not only because of the inevitable interpretation that is required by translation, but primarily because while translation has always struck me as an act of border-crossing, Azzopardi’s work itself focuses on the upheavals that result when a person is uprooted for any number of personal or political reasons, and finds herself in a situation where she is, in effect, mis(-)placed. This concern is evinced in three of her most recent stories, excerpts from which are reproduced here. It is perhaps most clear in /no adjective describe story/, but I find that it stubbornly resurfaces in Immersed and The Green Line.

Thus, when Clare asked me to write a short “review” of her fiction, I  could think of no better way to do this than to undertake some of the activity of “placement” that I referred to earlier.


But what about us?

The current political climate in Europe presents a bewildering array of conflicting tendencies, set against a background of economic uncertainty, whose symptomsare high unemployment and an attrition of that mainstay of our perceptions of wellbeing: “confidence”. Despite its recent expansion, Europe has been engulfedby a tide of right-wing and populist politics, widely held responsible for the resounding refusal by a number of its peoples to accept a Europeanconstitution. In a sense, members of such factions are perceiving a cosmopolitan threat, and their defiance could be paraphrased as a cry of “What about us?”.

This situation is reflected at the national level. Malta, in particular, has also seen the rise of a sizeable right-wing minority, whose objectives, though always unclear, seem to be directed towards the elusive goal of asserting a Maltese “identity” unsullied by foreign presences. Apart from thriving in climates of uncertainty, such assertions also need to posit an entity from which “we” can be differentiated. In the Maltese case, that entity has often been the klandestin,  meaning “illegal immigrant” or “refugee”.

Azzopardi’s /no adjective describe story/ is an interesting little mirror to hold up against this state of affairs. To begin with, its main character is elusive. Ostensibly, this is the story of a refugee, Adiam, a klandestina from Eritrea. However, the story stubbornly refuses to be Adiam’s. Set off in cumbersome slashes -- /nobody say my story/, she says --  Adiam’s voice surfaces only occasionally, and is a barely audible whisper that, like a faultline, ruptures the Maltese voices that populate the narrative.In fact, the story belongs to somebody else. It could belong to Ruth, who is recounting it as someone who has witnessed the events or heard about them; it could also be the story of the man, her ex-lover, who is engaged in the illegal (and highly profitable) transportation of klandestini outside Malta, while nurturing a disdain bordering on hatred for these “down and outs”; or it could be Rachel’s, the eighteen-year-old daughter of this man and Adiam’s friend, whose young, angry voice is perhaps the loudest and most direct of all, but who nevertheless is not the storyteller.

I think this refusal to “tell it straight” is a crucial aspect of Azzopardi’s fiction. For these stories are seldom tellable as narratives from a single point of view (that would ultimately pander to the strategy of sloganeering). In spite of Ruth’s wry commentary on the conditions in which these people are held in detention centres, and the ironic titles -- all quotations from the New Testament story of St. Paul’s shipwreck on Maltese shores --  the story does not present a single, dominant stance on the political issue of the displaced person. For example, while Rachel condemns her father for the profit that he makes from a group of displaced individuals, she herself has been privy to his doings for a long time, and has also been lured into the business by the prospect of making some money:

-- I almost wet myself with fear each time it happens.

-- How many times has it happened, Rach?

-- Three times so far. My dad needs a signal before he can leave his hideout.

-- And it’s strictly a family business.

-- Absolutely. Outsiders are too much of a risk.

-- So why did you never try to stop him?

-- Fuck that! That’s, like, pretty useless, isn’t it? Then again... ħeqq it’s not that easy to refuse the cash, know what I mean? I need the money too,Ruth. And let’s face it, there’s also the rush, you know, the excitement.

More examples of this clash of intentions, voices, motives, and principles can be found in the excerpt that Azzopardi has selected for this publication. Perhaps the most ironic comment of all comes from Adiam, who has the last, whispered word. By the end of the story, we learn that she has been the “victim” of Rachel’sfather’s clandestine operation. Having been allowed to leave the detention center for illegal immigrants in which she has been kept for months, she leavesthe island illegally. Her letter to Rachel concludes with the following words, which have finally been liberated from their confining slashes:

You my only friend. Maybe see you in future. You and Mum. Who know? I thank you. You and father.

Father and daughter are thanked by the victim; the accomplice(Rachel) is denoted “friend”. If this is a mirror to be held up against acontemporary political situation, then its images, clamouring for precedence and shouting “What about me?”, are significantly distorted. It is certainly a story about “us”, about the ethically problematic platforms on which we have to stand, depending on which side of a geopolitical divide we happen to occupy.


Personal worlds, geopolitical realities

So far, I have focused on Azzopardi’s work as a “mirror on the political”, while emphasising the oblique nature in which this “mirroring” functions; yet her narrativeswould be more accurately characterised as small sketches from the lives of individuals. The political is, after all, a web in which small lives are ensnared.

These three stories are all intensely personal, but the personal element is perhaps clearest in the first-person narrative of Immersed, and the interior monologue of The Green Line. Immersed is the story of Gordon Grech, a young ex-soldier to whom the burning down of a detainee camp over which he was supposed to keep watch becomes, albeit obliquely, an act of defiance against the father who has inflicted countless torments on his mother and sister. The centre of the narrative is a strange episode in which Gordon, during a violent operation in which the army quells a peaceful demonstration by the detainees in the camp, is suddenly reminded of the way his own father used to torture him by forcing his head underwater (on which see the excerpt):

I grabbed a fistful of hair and squashed his face into the mud until it oozed into his mouth, between his teeth, under his tongue. I pressed down even harder, imagined myself telling him: That’s the only way to strengthen your lungs my boy. And God help you if you so much as budge, you filthy animal.But I said not a word. Instead, I looked him straight in the eye and, with mud and gravel between his teeth he said Pleaseme innocent. Please me help.

It is difficult to read this passage without being reminded of a similar demonstration recently held in a Maltese detainee camp, or of the surge of violence that has swept across France in recent months. Yet, these events do not form the main fabric of the narrative; rather, it is Gordon’s relationship with his father, his uncertain regard of his mute sister, and his love for his mother that are the main events.

Neither does the recent bombing of the London Underground form the main fabric of the story in The GreenLine, although it grounds the story’s sense of foreboding and panic, its constant preoccupation with death. The Green Line follows the thread of a young woman’s thoughts as she sits through a long journey on the tube, accompanied by her brother and sister. Deeply disturbed by the events of a few days before, she finds herself revisiting every significant happening in her own life, every piece of unfinished business, and the sources of her own deep-seated anger.

It is anger, most of all, that strikes me as the central feature of these characters, whether it is rooted, as in Gordon’s case, from the memories of an abusive father, or whether it stems from the misunderstandings that characterise the fragments of conversation that the narrator of The Green Line recalls or undergoes in her imagination.  These are characters whose various minor epiphanies are sources of a muted joy, because theirs has been an experience of exchanges with others which, when not downright abusive, are simply elided fragments and circumlocutions, while the things that should be said remain unsaid. Here, for example, is an imaginary exchange that occurs in The Green Line between the anonymous protagonist and her mother:

- I’ve no idea what you’re on about.

- well, stands to reason...

- what?

- it’s all inherited down your side of the family!

- whatis?

- nanna's-sister was like that too... only they had her down as an old spinster

- I can remember.

- funny, that, ’cause I do remember.

- how could you remember? You were six when my mother’s sister passed away!

- She had a girlfriend too. Ġanna, I even remember her name, she was always talking abouther.

- I simply don’t remember.

- and now Pina’s started to sleep over at aunt Cett’s.

- what’s that got to do with anything

- ’course it does.

Both of these stories deal with hard and gritty personal realities, yet they are also oddly life-affirming. After all, Gordon does manage to breakout of his father’s stronghold, and the end of the story hints at the beginnings of something new:

Today, Kristi and I are sitting beneath a sky alive with seagulls. She’s playing with her dolls, dipping them into the icy blue sea. Me, I listen to the gullswithout shedding a tear.

Similarly, the woman whose thoughts we follow down the subterranean tube of The Green Line finds it impossible to understand how somebody who is in the grip of uncontrollable anger should take it upon himself to kill a whole crowd of people, instead of “lay[ing]into themselves with a blade until the pain becomes unbearable, as she does whenever she feels angry at the whole world, feels like taking it out on the whole of humanity”. And her final act at the end of this journey is almost oneof liberation: she takes off her shoes, and walks barefoot through a desolate train station.

On a personal note, I’ve found Clare Azzopardi’s work both challenging and immensely satisfying. At least some of that comes from the recognition of threads in her yarn which recall political and social events that have formed the backdrop of my life in recent years. But the most important element, in my view, is the way in whichsuch events, however momentous, never obliterate the excruciatingly real personal situations that her narrative portrays.


Albert Gatt

Aberdeen, November 2005

Linja reading

Sharon Bezzina reads from Il-Linja l-Ħadra by Clare Azzopardi