Death in (Malta)

book coverby Rosanne Dingli

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Fact: Malta is the only island to receive a medal for its service to the Allies in WWII. (Prior to the war, 250,000 people lived there.) It is one of only 2 collective awards of the St. George Cross (the other went to North Ireland’s Ulster Constabulary for its long battle against the IRA.)

I learned quite a bit about Malta while reading this book. Despite its proximity to Italy, there is a native language on the island–Maltese. This language had many similarities to Arabic, I thought, which isn’t surprising given that Malta has been occupied by Phoenicians, Carthagenians, Persians, Italians, Moors, Spaniards, etc. during its long history.

Lemons, Swordfish,
and Funny Little Cheeses

Malta sceneryThis mystery novel deals with events of only 20 years prior to the present day. When an Australian writer rents a house on the main island, wanting peace and quiet, he discovers a mystery and sets about fictionalizing it as he tries to solve it. The villagers are friendly to him at first, but turn against him when he is suspected of involvement in a village tragedy toward the end of the novel.

The mystery he is trying to solve: 20 years before, a boy went missing and was never found. The boy who lived in the house the writer is renting, in fact. There is suspicion in the village that the mother may have killed the kid, because she was abusive. She later had a complete breakdown and had to be put in an asylum.

Malta mapThis was an easy read, and a quick one. Mostly pleasant in the sunshine. I enjoyed the writer’s explorations of Maltese village life; his growing friendship with the alcoholic old doctor, and the irksome superiority of the formerly fascist priest. Also the incursions of the cleaning girl, who keeps wanting to tidy up his writing room.

Caveats:

  • Gregory Worthington is in some sense a stereotypical chauvinistic Australian male who falls in love with a young Maltese woman (young enough to be his daughter) because she doesn’t remind him of his ex-wife. The ex always made him feel inadequate, but the young one is sweet, supportive, and non-challenging. (Ugh.) I felt  in some sense he was a weak man who needed a woman to prop him (and his writing) up, and this was a bit annoying.
  • I found it a little strange that the Mifsud’s family’s first child was called Cinsenu, but the other two are called Charlie and Rosy.
  • I did not buy Worthington’s theory at the end that sometimes it is better not to know (what happened to the missing boy). That just isn’t true. Anyone who has ever watched crime TV knows that the victim’s family ALWAYS wants closure. Speaking from personal experience, not knowing is worse because there are so many awful scenarios running through your mind. When you find out what happened, there is only one. If there was no foul play, even more comforting. So I found his decision unsatisfying and a bit disappointing.

All told, it was an enjoyable book, if a little queer. I would have enjoyed having a bit more Maltese history thrown in, but did like what was there. And it was interesting to read how homesick he was for Perth, a city my high-school friend who was an exchange student there found too American and pretty boring. I got a whole different rendering of the WA city, as opposed to Melbourne, where the ex lived.

Rating: Three Maltese olives.

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Lady of the Shroud (Montenegro)

book coverby Bram Stoker

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

The Land of the Blue Mountains is Montenegro, but not. It is a genre that became popular after the wild success of barrister Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.  The genre is named after Hope’s fictional Balkan kingdom of Ruritania.

Montenegro is referred to a few times in the beginning of the novel and flat-out named at the end. (A non-fiction work called Land of the Black Mountain: The Adventures of Two Englishmen in Montenegro was published in the early 1920s.)

Greek Orthodox Church

Greek Orthodox Church in Cetinje

In this Bildungs-Roman, or court-romance, the mountaineers are fierce, proud, solitary, self-reliant, and wave their “handjars” about all over the place. A handjar is a Turkish or Persian dagger–although the mountaineers have fought the Turks for over 1,000 years to maintain their independence. They’re a bit backward when it comes to rights for women. Their culture is old, their nation is new.

What History Reveals

Map of MontenegroI was curious to see what a cool Englishman like Abraham Stoker would make of the passionate Balkans; what prejudices might be revealed unknowingly, and how his writing would hold up in a Gothic romance beyond Dracula.

We are introduced to the hero, Rupert (of course, he has to be called this after Rupert of Hentzau) through his peevish cousin, Ernest Melton. Melton describes Rupert disdainfully as a poor relation, who loves and is loyal to his foster-mother, former governess and Scotswoman old Janet MacKelpie. Ernest refers to her rudely as “the MacSkelpie”.

Montenegro Map World War 1It is easy to see, however, that Ernest is an unreliable narrator as well as a thoroughly despicable young man. So the reader cheers when Uncle Roger leaves the bulk of his fortune to Rupert instead, only stipulating that our hero spend time at his estate in the Land of the Blue Mountains.

While there, Rupert encounters the mysterious Lady of the Shroud and immediately falls in love (having exchanged virtually no conversation with her–her beauty is enough. Eye-rolls galore from this modern reader.)

ZendaAs in any good Ruritanian novel, Rupert and the Blue Mountaineers seek to restore the government of the Voivode Peter Vissarion and his daughter Teuta after some incursions by the Turks. However, the Land is a chauvinist one. So after Peter declines to rule, saying he would prefer a younger man to do so in order that he can retire to a monastery (!) Rupert himself is chosen over the Princess, despite having been enjoined by his Uncle Roger to keep his British nationality. (She makes a truly stomach-turning speech about the place of women, and how things that have been the same for 1,000 years should never be changed. Yuck.)

Plot & Characters-No Chunking

I loved how Ernest goes to visit his cousin Rupert at the end of the novel and nearly gets decapitated for bad manners by the hostile Blue Mountaineers. He then takes a turn as a literary correspondent for a paper back home, but gets axed for his reportage, which includes too many self-congratulatory asides and comments on his own liver.

Monte MapThe writing, by today’s standards, was sometimes boring, with long  chunks of unbroken text on pretty dry subjects. The whole novel is epistolary, so you have to find drama in the conversational bits of different letters. A good editor today would have broken it up into bite-sized paragraphs and summarized a lot of legal documents–we don’t have to read the whole thing!

Aunt Janet, who has the Second Sight, also has a Scottish accent that seems intermittent to me. Sometimes she speaks pure Scots, sounding almost as incomprehensible to an American as a native of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County–and sometimes she sounds just like Rupert, even saying “know” instead of “ken”. (But she always refers to eyes as “een”.)

MonteTeuta has a moment of “brilliance” toward the end of the novel when she describes the great virgin forests in the mountains, all hardwoods, and how they can be cut down and sold for the much-desired prosperity for the land. (Bad idea, honey chile. Very bad idea.)

While this novel, set in 1907, doesn’t hold up terribly well over 100 years later, I’m glad I read it. (Though I don’t feel the least need to read Stoker’s other works, like the Lair of the Whyte Worm. I can guess how it goes.) Some of the historical bits now seem quaint, antiquated, curious, and just plain wrong. The nauseating speech of Teuta about Blue Mountain Womanhood–blech. But the character of people hasn’t really changed. The delightfully crabbed cousin, for example. The heroism of Rupert. The machismo of Michael, the Wine Chief, when Cousin Ernest kisses his pretty wife Julia.

Worth a read, especially if you haven’t yet gone beyond Dracula. Three whirring salutes of the handjar.