A Village for an Island

 

Malta in Frans Sammut's Novel Samuraj

 

Abstract – In Frans Sammut's novel Samuraj, the village in which most of the action takes place, is a metaphor of post-Independence Malta that is trying, and more often than not failing, to come to terms with what has been called the "severity of independence". The isolated, backward Village is plagued by the bipolar nature of its social make-up and strangled by its overpowering Church. Its ‘moral’ community takes the protagonist's refusal to toe the line as an affront to its authority, and its aggressive reaction forces him to turn to the painful, but fond memory of his battered mother for comfort, echoing independent Malta's inability to wean itself away from its colonised past.

 

Introduction

 

Written a decade after Malta became an independent state in 1964, the novel Samuraj by Frans Sammut (1975) can be read as a political narrative about Malta and its need to become truly independent. Samuraj recounts the story of a lone bachelor, Samwel, whose relationship with Żabbett, a young woman in her twenties is deemed highly improper by the tightly knit community of their traditional rural village. When the young woman walks out of the oppressive environment of her parents’ home and moves in with the as yet unprepared Samwel, who is still tormented by his difficult childhood, the village community decides it is time to intervene and Samwel loses both Żabbett and what was left of his self-esteem and his desire to live. Perhaps not enough attention has been given to the political aspects of this novel since Samuraj can be read as the story of a group of people who are trying to get to grips with their identity as individuals and as part of a nation.

 

The indications of this dual search for identity first surface in the opening chapter in which Samwel, the protagonist, observes that "in this land", it is always "either summer or winter" (p.5). Autumn does not exist. "It’s either sunny or rainy. You either go to Hell or to Heaven" (p.5) it is not even possible to end up in limbo because newborn babies are immediately taken to church to be baptised.

At least two points emerge from these initial observations made by the protagonist: the bipolar nature of Maltese society (Samwel is not referring to a particular village but to the country in general) and the great influence of the Catholic Church on the people’s lives. These comments regarding the identity of the Maltese people are are not random observations but seminal points that will be developed throughout the novel.

 

The institution of the Church emerges as a powerful force that suffocates the individual because it uses its moral authority and extensive resources to control the community. In Samuraj, the Church is not really interested in people’s lives and loves, in their griefs and beliefs. All the Church seems to want is to guarantee and consolidate her privileged and domineering position by, among other things, supporting the status quo and enforcing obedience to the accepted norms of behaviour. In dealing with Samwel and Żabbett, the Church ignores what their relationship means to them and demands nothing but unconditional obedience.

 

In the novel the institution of the Church is represented by those who play a leading role in its organisation, namely Dun Vinċenz Abela-Tanti, the parish priest, and Sa Rożann, the puritan lay volunteer who herself takes the responsibility to make right whatever is wrong in the Village. She considers herself to be the parish priest’s right hand, and a mother figure to all the unmarried young women of the Village. Ironically, the parish priest himself can’t stand her intrusions: he labels her egocentrism and the way she tries to dominate other people’s lives Sarożannċentriżmu, but at the end of the day, the two of them agree on the most important matter, that the relationship between Samwel and Żabbett is unacceptable and has to be stopped.

 

In his study of the village of Ħal Kirkop carried out in the late 1960s, Boissevain observes that all visitors to Malta are struck "forcefully" by "the importance that religion occupies in its many aspects, as a system of belief and action." In Ħal Kirkop, religion not only orders the rhythm of the villagers’ lives but it also "provides the structural form of the community in which they live". As in Sammut’s anonymous village, the religious belief of the villagers "defines and enforces the moral limits of their behaviour" and influences their relations with others (Boissevain 1980:56).

 

In Samuraj, the pressure of the Church and the moral community on the young couple takes the form of what Gilmore (1987a:xi,11) has called "symbolic forms of aggression", that is, "non-violent acts with injurious intent". Gilmore’s point is that although these acts are usually deplored, they are "essential for the unfolding of that in-group feeling of belonging" that Durkheim in another context called the "group mind". Gilmore argues that aggression is the human motive underlying the action of "cultural superstructure" or "shared frame of mind". An aggressive public opinion, like the one that is present throughout Samuraj and is epitomised by Sa Rożann, "holds the group together by disallowing deviance, by punishing solecisms, and by rectifying" what the anthropologist calls "disturbances in the fabric of tradition". Symbolic aggression becomes "a force that binds", not only in the small Andalusian town of Fuenmayor that Gilmore studied, or in Samuraj’s Ra]al, but in all small-scale moral communities.

 

When discussing with the parish priest about the repercussions the scandalous behaviour of Samwel and Żabbett might have for the community, Rożann speaks in the first person plural, deliberately promoting herself as the spokeswoman of the village community. Her false humility only makes her arrogance as opposed to the vulnerability and acquiescence of the community more evident.

 

© Adrian Grima (1999)

 


 

Please note that this is only the first part of this article. The whole article has been published in the first issue of Humanitas, the journal of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta. For further information please contact Adrian Grima at adrian.grima@um.edu.mt

 

 

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