Mark Sammut writes:
“Better... the day of death than the day of birth” (Qoh 7:1)
For some time, I had been thinking of suggesting to him to write an autobiography. But then he died at the age of 65 on May 4, and now I find myself writing his obituary.
My father was first and foremost a bibliophile who read voraciously and wrote tirelessly: books, novels, novellas, short stories, librettos, articles, essays, comments on timesofmalta.com.
He collected books passionately. His library counts thousands of tomes, full of folded sheets replete with scribbled notes, placed thematically according to the trail he would be following in his research.
He taught and lectured for decades. His students remember him as an incisive teacher with a bubbly sense of humour who took interest in them, seeing their success as his own and taking pains in preparing them for exams, using the same technique he would use – as he told me – when writing a book.
As Oliver Friggieri pointed out in a brilliant lecture delivered in the mid 1990s, my father will be remembered for the triptych Il-Gaġġa – Samuraj – Il-Ħolma Maltija.
There are other works, of course: collections of short stories, monographs on political themes (which he artfully used as a springboard for his ideas on literature) and on religious figures (Dun Ġorġ Preca, St Philip of Agira).
My father brokered an exquisite marriage between spirituality and reason. Disliking formalism and superstition, he equally disliked those who derided faith.
He argued that there is more than the world of the senses and added that it is intellectually shallow, if not outright foolish, to exclude a priori the spiritual world.
On another occasion, he told me excitedly how thrilled he was by what a priest friend of his, one of our foremost intellectuals, had been telling him about the common ground between the three mono-theistic religions.He taught me that only by becoming a true Christian do you become a mature person.
The same insight he had for things patriotic. He devoted his life to understanding nation-building processes, and contributed by writing about Malta’s history, studying and promoting Maltese and quarrelling with all those he considered wishy-washy in their recognition of the importance of language for national dignity.
He also believed a healthy nation takes care and provides for its less affluent members.
His friendship with Alfred Sant, born of and nurtured by a common love for literature, was sincere and faithful till the very end. Loyalty as a prime value is a legacy which we, his sons, will cherish till we die.
As far as I know, my father’s hobbies were walking the dog, watching good films and lecturing all those willing to listen on Vassalli and Bonaparte. This last hobby was quite a headache for us at home! But I am glad we endured it.
Writing was not a hobby but his calling, his part-time, ex-gratia profession. He told me becoming a well-known and widely-read author had been his childhood dream. He was obviously happy he achieved it.
Like Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture. Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, my father gave many small last lectures during his last days to impart his legacy and convey his love for the work he would be leaving unfinished.
Logħba Bejn Erbgħa is in my eyes unfinished, as it is rarely mentioned. But in the more conventional sense of the word, my father left at least two unfinished novels. One of them, provisionally entitled Għasafar bla Ġwienaħ, is set in the Cold War; in the other he wanted to portray the Abate Vella of The Council of Egypt fame in a new light.
There is a third work also unfinished: a translation of Vassalli’s Is-Sultan Ċiru. There are also two manuscripts, in Italian, about the Knights of St John and Cagliostro – as yet unpublished.
His analysis (translated into French) of Bonaparte’s six-day sojourn in Malta is a veritable tour de force. However, my father’s two greatest contributions to Maltese culture are probably his Vassalliana and his revolutionary interpretation of Caxaru’s Cantilena.
One of the few regrets he mentioned on his deathbed was that a book published subsequently to his essay cited his very same sources and put forward his ‘discovery’ without acknowledging him.
Apart from his book Letteratura, my father’s most important work of literary criticism is arguably On The Da Vinci Code, a bilingual commentary Charles Flores declared his favourite book of 2006. One professor confided to me privately he wept upon reading it.
When I was 12, we read The Importance of Being Earnest, and we laughed so hard we cried, just like when we spent the 1987-1988 season watching Renzo Arbore’s Indietro Tutta! on Raidue.
In 1998, we watched Life is Beautiful, Benigni’s splendid tale about the Jewish father who protects his son from the brutalities of Nazi evil.
Every father wants to protect his children from the evils of the world. Mine too, and even though I didn’t always agree with his method or strategy, I thank him for doing more than his duty called for, with love and dedication.
There shall always be gratitude toward relatives and friends who showed their sympathy and solidarity, and offered help at the time of his hospitalisation and departure. The staff at the hospital were particularly sweet and understanding. We were deeply touched by all this.
In hospital, he was jovial, shrugging off any pity usually reserved for terminally ill patients. To some he said that during May, “my wife and I should be going to Jerusalem, but it seems plans have changed. I am now going to the Heavenly Jerusalem”. Less than 23 hours later, he expired – fearlessly and serenely, fully aware that life, indeed beautiful, was slipping away from him.
I shall miss him, as I told him, hugging him, a few hours before he died.
My father is no longer. But Frans Sammut will live on. In his works, and in his good and generous deeds. May his readers, old and new, keep enjoying reading his writings, just like he enjoyed writing them.