Karmenu Bonavia u Kitbietu
Vol. 1, Ed. Mużew tas-Santwarju, Ħaz-Żabbar, Malta, 2019, pp. xxxvii + 375, illustrated.

An unsuspecting Karmenu Bonavia made sure, in his utterly humble and non-ostentatious way, that his fleeting presence on earth would not fade when he passed away. Millions come and go, preordained to be entirely forgotten. They leave no imprints in the sand, no ripples on the rivers of life. Born in unawareness, alive to earn oblivion, deleted at death. Not Karmenu.

A most mild-mannered among men, with raging cravings consuming him. A passion for his fatherland, for learning more and then more again, for his Christian faith, for his native language, for shining light on the darknesses of the past. He was a manic historian for whom a siesta from erudition only meant betrayal, a good man for whom compliance with ethical duties had no alternatives.

This book brings together what others thought about Bonavia, and what Karmenu put together about Ħaż-Żabbar, its history, its notable citizens and anything in any way connected with his native conurbation. And that runs to over 400 pages. Though Karmenu had an excellent command of English, his favourite medium of expression seems to have been Maltese, in which he was fastidious and prolific.  The book contains a bibliography of his published work, and what an impressive list it turns out to be.

Though the historical evolution of Ħaż-Żabbar remained his principal focus of interest, his research commitments ranged far wider than that. His contribution to Mikiel Anton Vassalli scholarship was outstanding, and so are his writings on philately-related subjects. Not to overlook his ground-breaking volume on the 18th century subversive revolutionary lawyer, Giuseppe Elia Pace, published in 2014, inexplicably omitted from the bibliography.

He regularly contributed cultural features to The Sunday Times of Malta.

The irony of it all: That one of the most devout, Church-going and orthodox disciples of the traditional Roman hierarchy, the rosary-munching Karmenu, should have linked his name with the exhumation and rehabilitation of the fame of two revolutionary dissidents, Vassalli and Pace, both suspected of Protestant and masonic sympathies, both promoters of liberal anti-popish allegiances, both champions of the ungodly French Revolution.

How do you start reconciling one with the other? Perhaps because for a genuine historian like Bonavia, truth always remains more compelling than prejudice.

Do not run away with the idea that Bonavia was only intrigued by the lives and deeds of the opponents of his one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith. Far from it. He knew and worked alongside St Ġorġ Preca, whom he revered and idolised; he dedicated much of his writing to that crusader of Christian doctrine, including a stand-alone book and a chapter in this volume. But do not waste time looking him up in the index. Preca will send you to San, which will in turn send you to Ġorġ, and cumulatively you will end up nowhere, but in a jolly circle.

For a genuine historian like Bonavia, truth always remains more compelling than prejudice

A teacher by profession, Karmenu Bonavia was born in 1929 in Ħaż-Żabbar, where he lived the rest of his life, a star player in the cultural and religious life of Città Hompesch. He became head of school in 1986, and remained a devout member of the Society of Christian Doctrine throughout all his adult life.

I used to meet him mostly during historical seminars or talks, never without his Verbum Dei emblem prominent on his lapel. His innate humility, the simplicity of his manners, the unassertiveness of his demeanour were, in a paradoxical way, his badge of pride. Karmenu passed away two years ago, and the directors of the museum of the Ħaż-Żabbar Sanctuary, of which for many years he was curator, have started repaying their debt of gratitude to him, publishing the first volume of his collected works.

Ħaż-Żabbar is not Renaissance Florence, a small city which in a relatively few decades produced more geniuses, more great art, music, humanism, inventions and literature than the rest of the world put together. Nonetheless, in its more modest dimensions, Città Hompesch is still the home of an active human community, with its profiles, its contradictions, its uniqueness.

In Bonavia it has found its troubadour and its historian. Every corner of humanity deserves that. Let alone the city whose sanctuary has perhaps the loveliest of baroque façades in Malta.

These essays are all about bigger and smaller Ħaż-Żabbar, as seen through the lenses of time and of relentless research. The physical Ħaż-Żabbar, its buildings old and newer, its monuments, its statues and other sculptures, its streets and alleys, its churches and chapels, its paintings, its museums, its texture. Not a guidebook in any way, but more of a biography of its hardware.

And then also a journey through its history, from its obscure origins to its calamities, like the killer plague of 1813, which wiped out large swathes of the Maltese population, and of which Ħaż-Żabbar preserves the only surviving death-cart, fortuitously salvaged from its disused charnel house.

Or the lethal cholera of 1887, or the crash of the Vulcan bomber near the centre of the city on October 14, 1975, in which five members of the crew, and Vincenza Zammit (not mentioned in the book) lost their lives. About a hundred houses and shops suffered losses and damages, but deaths to the inhabitants were, one would say miraculously, minimal.

Then there is a mine of information derived from the report of the visitation of the parishes of Malta by Pietro Dusina in 1575. To call it invaluable would be to underestimate it. It is about the only reliable and detailed record of rural Malta in the cinquecento that survives, and it tells us plenty about Ħaż-Żabbar, especially the state of its spirit and its several ecclesiastical establishments. The long account by Tommaso Gargallo of 1600 further enriches our archival knowledge, based on dense evidence, of early modern Ħaż-Żabbar. Bonavia makes full use of both.

In my view, one of the best and most interesting chapters in this volume deals with the contribution of the Żabbarin to the revolt of the Maltese countryside against Napoleon’s armies in 1798. Ħaż-Żabbar remained central to the war effort, with its manpower, its commitment, its dead, its wounded and those felled by famine and illness.

For once, a housewife distinguished herself in the deadly Ħaż-Żabbar melee, but as ever, being a woman, history condemns her to be faceless and nameless. The enlightening outcome of so much original research Bonavia put into this essay rewarded its author generously.

The revolt against the French occupiers remains one of the very few, far too few, explosions of popular anger by the Maltese people, against centuries of oppression, arrogant dominance and scrooge exploitation by powerful and autocratic foreigners. The Maltese were, throughout history, too meek, stoic to the point of pusillanimity, indifferent and resigned. They generally preferred to look the other way. Bonavia documents one of the very rare instances when they did not.

This collection of works on Ħaż-Żabbar witnesses another paradox of modern Malta – the more globalisation takes over, the more international we become, the greater the need for a parochial anchorage. One would have thought that with internet throwing the world wide open, with full membership in the European Union, with intense foreign exchanges, the village festa would decline, the piques of parish patron saints would become irrelevant and the compulsion to identify with a particular tribe would fade. On the contrary, it has strengthened. The more global externally, the more provincial inside.

The book is quite lavishly illustrated, some of the photographs the work of Bonavia himself. One can feel his sense of pride that when the Holy See came to raise San Ġorġ Preca to the altars, the official banner hanging from St Peter’s in Rome carried a portrait of the new saint based on a photo taken by Karmenu Bonavia. Dun Ġorġ, Karmenu tells us in an affectionate aside, loathed posing for portraits.

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