Who is afraid of Fredu Gambin?
Although the characters in Il-Gaġġa (The Cage) are fictitious, declares the late Frans Sammut in an introductory note to his novel, the cage is real. That book was first published in 1971, 40 years ago. Meanwhile the cage has undergone significant makeovers. Now, as many of you will be reading this online, I suggest you click http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/makeover and http://www.oxfordadvancedlearnersdictionary.com/dictionary/makeover , or any other decent online English dictionary, and check out the meaning of “makeover”.
The former will give you “a set of changes that are intended to make a person or place more attractive” and the latter, “the process of improving the appearance of a person or a place, or of changing the impression that something gives”. Makeovers, in other words, seem to have to do with essentially cosmetic, superficial change. Beneath the surface, some things stay as they are.
This is not the place to discuss the nature and the extent of what change has in fact taken place. I have done so elsewhere and my views on the subject are easily accessible to those that wish to engage them. Nor is it the place to discuss the suitability of the term “makeover” to describe the changes Maltese society has undergone in the four turbulent decades since Sammut gave us his first novel – certainly a milestone event in Maltese literature.
I would be the last to contest the importance of certain social, economic and political transformations that have taken place, although – as I have attempted to demonstrate in my contribution to Sultana and Baldacchino’s evergreen collection, Maltese Society. A Sociological Inquiry (1994) and in Cutajar and Cassar’s more recent reader Transitions in Maltese Society (2009) – they need to be shorn of the rhetoric of their narrative if they are to be critically appreciated. But the point remains that some important things have not changed. Some important features of our culture have survived these long 40 years.
The divorce issue has brought these out into the open. Let me be clear about this point. One should not be surprised that today a large proportion of the Maltese would not opt for divorce as a measure of last resort even if their marriage were irretrievably lost. Even if we stand at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. The particular sort of Catholic traditions of this country and the specific cultural conditions under which Maltese Catholics have formed themselves, are such that it would have been surprising had a majority of Maltese Catholics declared that should they ever find themselves in the unfortunate position of being unable to make their marriage work, they would consider divorce as the lesser of evils.
That many of them will not consider this option is, in our circumstances, perfectly understandable. One can disagree with them but a democrat could never, under any circumstances, dream of denying them the right to follow their conscience. Everybody is and should be free not to seek to divorce.
What is surprising – and what shows that many important things have not changed in this country in the 40 years since the publication of Il-Gaġġa – is that anyone can claim that their personal religious belief compels them to deny the divorce option to those fellow citizens who would resort to it, responsibly, if and when they were to need it. With such a position not only can one disagree but, if modern democracy is to mean anything at all, one must disagree with it. It is nothing short of fundamentalist and fundamentally undemocratic.
The crudeness and emotional cruelty of the Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le poster along our major thoroughfares suggests that indeed many of the changes of the past 40 years have been of the “makeover” variety. The most superficial of them was (is) almost certainly the great European makeover. How can one honestly reconcile the EU’s democratic ideals – firmly rooted in the soil of the Enlightenment – with the denial of the right to seek divorce by those fellow citizens that see it as a good solution to their personal problems? Indeed, how Christian is such a position?
Fr Joe Borg in his blog on timesofmalta.com said that he “was greatly disappointed by the news of the setting up of the Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le Movement”. He goes further: “The language, symbols and imagery they use is bound to be counterproductive. It builds no bridges with all those good Catholics who favour divorce because they see it – and very well it could be for them – as a good solution to their problems. The movement builds no bridges with those good Catholics who after reflecting on Church teaching, studying the local situation and researching about the effects of divorce overseas support its introduction as the lesser of two evils”.
Fr Borg recognises their appeal for “the nostalgic Catholics (…) who were described by Archbishop Cremona as a pastoral problem for the Church”. Does this mean then the Archbishop also considers Eddie Fenech Adami – who has openly taken a fundamentalist position – a “pastoral problem for the Church”?
It is difficult, in these circumstances, not to suspect that the grandiloquent makeovers we have lived and continue to live through, are not the result of the sort of reasoning with which Tancredi convinced the Prince of Salina in Il Gattopardo: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Swim on, Fredu Gambin, swim on.
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on May 9, 2011, and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110509/opinion/Who-is-afraid-of-Fredu-Gambin-.364371