I am convinced this printed tribute on the 18th anniversary of the demise of this poet and philanthropist must have originated in my sub-conscious many many decades ago.
I first met fiery Karmenu Vassallo - (March 18, 1913 - April 7, 1987) - in a student-teacher relationship in my first year at The Lyceum. He was the master in my Maltese class. To an 11-year-old boy in 1947 in his first year, the encounter was indeed electrifying. I was immediately struck by a physically diminutive man but with an overpowering hold on the mind of a sensitive and impressionable boy. The more so when Karmenu Vassallo, from time to time, shared with us, his students, snippets about his own childhood.
Years later I was able to understand the man's psyche, his pains and anxieties about what his mortal life was all about. When his book Ghaziz Karmenu (Dear Carmel) was published in 1982, being a collection of 446 letters addressed to the poet and the man from a rainbow of writers, I wept with him on reading his own terse comments on his life and the letters.
Six short years later, after a fairly prolonged illness which kept him strapped to his bed for most of the time with only the telephone and the radio to keep him in touch with the outside world, Mr Vassallo left this mortal life.
It seems that this poet's life was intertwined with pathos and anger from the time he was propelled into this world. He himself recalls that when he was born on March 18, 1913, it was Holy Week. That year, just as this year, Easter had come early, to be exact on March 23. This meant there was no holy water in the fount on Wednesday March 19 when he was taken to church to be baptised and to be formally admitted in the folds of Mother Church.
According to Mr Vassallo himself, life may not have smiled on him all the way. He may have been bitter about this and he expressed his anger especially in his early poems published as a collection entitled Nirien (Flames) (1938). He was 25. He had lost his priestly vocation a few years earlier and left the Societas Sancti Paoli in late November 1935, having joined it in 1932.
His intentions had been to become a missionary. It was not to be. But, ever the communicator with a clear message, albeit not always immediately understood in Catholic Malta in the environment of the 1930s, he embarked on journalism as a career. In 1937 he was appointed literary editor of a Maltese daily called Il-Berqa (The flash), a sister paper of The Times.
Mr Vassallo's mind was very active. He gave vent to his feelings in the poems he wrote. His writings and his verses were never obscure in their message but as transparent and forthright of his thoughts and feelings, as were his conversations throughout his life. The man had no malice but abundance of magnanimity.
Mr Vassallo tried his hands and luck at local politics. He was successful to be returned in the interests of the Labour Party as a representative of the people in the Council of Government in November 1945.
Years later, in the June 1971 election, although not elected himself, the votes he garnered contributed substantially to give Labour a victory after having been out of office since 1958.
His keen sense of civic duties and his undying love and dedication to the village of his birth - Siggiewi - show themselves when we find him as a founder member of the fledgling Siggiewi Football Club in 1945. He served as president of the club from 1945 to 1953.
For a man who dedicated his life to Maltese literature some may find it strange that in 1944, at the height of World War II, Mr Vassallo wrote his one and only poem in English which he called Victory! At the time he also tried to encourage J. Abela Scolaro to set it to music. The attempt was not successful.
Mr Vassallo's very able translation into Maltese of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was published in 1950. The translator himself admits in the Foreword how he started his work on the first day of Lent, February 11, 1948, and that between February 11 and March 13, that is in the space of one month, he had finished the first six chapters of Book One. Book Two, which consists of 24 chapters, he recalls starting on March 19, 1948 and finished it on June 9, 1949. The final 15 chapters of Book Three were started on September 3, 1949, to be finished and published in the late Autumn of the following year.
The book was serialised and also read on the local relay system - Rediffusion. It was received by Malta's literary elite and the general reader with joy and appreciation. Dickens himself must have approved of the fidelity which the translator most meticulously turned into idiomatic and readable Maltese.
Mr Vassallo has also lectured and gave public talks on religious, political and cultural topics. During various literary evenings he read selections from his own prose and poetry works.
Mr Vassallo opens the first part of his three-part series depicting Self Portrait (Civilisation issues No 6, 7 and 8 Part One p164) with the "tormenting question" which for a long time, like Hamlet's "to be or not to be", had been weighing heavily on his mind.
In Karmenu Vassallo, a man I had first met as teacher and admired and with whom, later, at various stages of my adult life, I shared joys and sorrows, I see a Maltese version of another favourite writer, Nikos Kazantsakis.
This Greek and my Maltese compatriot, both very spiritual authors, have left indelible marks on me. Both writers have had to struggle through life and fight one "temptation" after another.
The least I can do, especially in the case of Mr Vassallo, is to have him remembered.
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