Friday, 29 June 2018

Book Review: The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat

However pleasant island life can be, it can also have serious disadvantages when it comes to assuring supply with all those things that nature can’t offer at all or not in sufficient quantities. In war times, for instance, the watery enclosure can turn into an almost unsolvable, even life-threatening problem, notably when the island is located in a strategically important place and becomes target of military action. In history, the latter has been more than once the fate of the small island of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and North Africa as shows the historical novel The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat. During World War II Father Salvatore takes it upon him to look after the bombed-out sheltering in catacombs and to improve their morale speaking to them about the many challenges that their forefathers faced and survived in more than two millennia.

Nicholas Monsarrat was born in Liverpool, England, U.K., in March 1910. After his law studies at Trinity College in Cambridge, he worked as a solicitor for two years and then turned to writing free-lance for different newspapers. In 1934, he brought out his first novel titled Think of To-Morrow, but only his fourth novel, This Is the Schoolroom (1939), brought him first critical acclaim. During World War II, the declared pacifist served with the Royal Navy and wrote some non-fiction. As from 1945, Nicholas Monsarrat worked for the diplomatic corps in South Africa and Canada, where he resumed writing fiction and produced several sea war stories and eventually his most successful novel The Cruel Sea (1951). The Story of Esther Costello (1952) and some less important works followed, before he took up writing full-time in 1956 and settled down on Guernsey, then on the Channel Islands, and at last on Gozo, a little island belonging to Malta. The best remembered among the author’s later novels are The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956), its sequel Richer Than All His Tribe (1968), and the historical novel The Kappillan of Malta (1973). Nicholas Monsarrat died in London, England, U.K., in August 1979.

In June 1940, Father Salvatore Santo-Nobile is not yet The Kappillan of Malta, but just an ordinary priest in his mid-forties descending from one of the noblest families of the island. He is on the way to his family’s Palazzo in Valletta for the weekly morning coffee with his aged mother, when only seven hours after Mussolini’s declaration of war Italian bombers bring the horrors of air raids to Malta. By the evening many people are dead, many buildings in ruins like the unfinished church of Saint Barnabas that has been Father Salvatore’s pride and biggest dream for eight years.
“The moonlight fell on tossed hummocks of stone, on jagged corners of wall, on the curved up-ended saucer which was the shattered dome; and on the piles of dust which, stirred by their feet, was bitter in the mouth and nostrils, choking to the spirit. But that was all. It was not even as heart-rending as he had feared. This was no longer a church, nor even part of a church. It was a builders’ rubbish tip, formless, derelict, not wanted any more by hopeful man.”
All that is left of the church is the travelling altar with a sacred relic plastered in that his sacristan Rafel hid in a sack under a pile of stone so it wouldn’t be stolen. More than ever determined to continue his work, Father Salvatore moves to the catacombs below the Cottonera Lines where hundreds of shocked people who lost their homes sought shelter and where he intends to put up his travelling altar as heart of a provisory church. Under the impression of a terrible day, he makes his first encouraging homily evoking adversities and glories of Maltese history.
“Indeed, scarcely had he begun to hear his own voice echoing round the great shadowy vault of their refuge, flowing over the spaces packed with men and women and children in every stage of tumult and misery, flowing past the carved niches where the bones and the brown dust of the little brothers lay in peace, than he was possessed with tongues, and other powers took command.”
Helped by Rafel and a vigorous young carpenter of restricted growth called Nero who later replaces the sacristan, Father Salvatore sees to it that his flock keeps at least essential rules of conduct in the stinking catacombs. However, to the growing dismay of his superiors, especially ambitious Monsignor Scholti who regularly visits his influential mother, he refrains from asking an utterly virtuous life of the much-tried people and gains almost saintly fame. In addition, he has to deal with family problems like an Italophile brother-in-law who goes to goal eventually and with his niece’s love to a British fighter pilot.

The driving action of The Kappillan of Malta is set in the siege of Malta during World War II and alternates with a hexameron of Father Salvatore’s homilies that give a comprehensive, though cursory introduction into more than two millennia of Maltese history. This main body of the novel is told from the third-person perspective of an unconcerned as well as all-knowing observer and skilfully parenthesised by a day-tripper’s first-person account of the priest’s funeral in the early 1970s. While the war plot with its many twists and turns including a rather innocent love story, the relieving end of a marriage and the schemes of the self-righteous higher clergyman against the very popular parish priest, the hexameron is much less electrifying than it is meant to be and even feels lengthy occasionally. However stereotypical the characters may be – quick and positive “dwarf” Nero as opposite to slow and morose “giant” Rafel, for instance –, they appear nonetheless true and alive, notably Father Salvatore who is good and understanding, and yet, far from a saint. The detailed descriptions of the destruction and grief that the air raids caused are quite impressive, not least thanks to the novel’s precise and simple language.

On the whole, I’m pleased to say that for me The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat was a captivating as well as a touching read about people enduring for three years the horrors of air raids and a sea blockade on the small island of Malta. A while ago, a friend sent me a brochure of the Malta at War Museum, but although a fictitious story it was the novel that made me truly understand what it meant to be under siege and how fierce the battle for supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea actually was between Allied Forces, especially British ones, and Italy on the side of Germany. Of course, many cruel details reminded me of other World War II novels set in sieged cities like The Conductor by Sarah Quigley (»»» read my review). At any rate, The Kappillan of Malta is a novel that deserves my recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a worthwhile read. I have read two books by Monsarrat: The Cruel Sea and The Tribe That Lost Its Head. I liked his writing and his take on the politics of giving a colonized country its independence. I read those two because they were on the bestseller lists of My Big Fat Reading Project.


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