Ivan De Battista: L-Aħħar Tlettax. Merlin Publishers, 2013. 149 pp.
Some people are born under a lucky star, everything they touch turning into the proverbial gold. Then there’s the protagonist of Ivan De Battista’s latest novel.
His grandmother was a prostitute who practiced her profession while supposedly baby-sitting. His father beat him up badly and sexually abused him. He winds up with hepatitis, he steals, he takes drugs, gets married and is eventually dumped. His wife cheats on him and gets her new lover (who also happens to be the company lawyer where the narrator is employed) to give him the sack. Oh yeah, and they take away custody of his child, Samwel, too. And then his mother (the only person he loves and feels no bitterness for) dies and leaves him alone, and in hospital, slave to a mystery illness that is slowly killing him.
You could say our anti-hero, whom the author leaves nameless, was born under an unlucky star. Or you could say that he is simply a whiny bastard who never tried to help himself in life, preferring to dig a deeper hole and play the martyr’s game all through his life. I, myself, would opt for the latter description because, unfortunately, at no point during the 13 days that span de Battista’s story do I ever feel any empathy – or even pity – for the man.
The storyline kicks off on Sunday, September 1, 2002. If it weren’t for the actual time-print, the holier-than-thou tone taken by the narrator would have led me to believe that the story was set in a much earlier period, maybe early 20th century. The tale can be described as a morality piece, with the narrator constantly taking the role of the preacher.
His character contains a decidedly misogynistic streak, with all females he encounters through his life taking on the role of Madonna or whore. There are no grey morality areas in the eyes of the narrator. Thus, we see how his grandmother’s profession made her evil incarnate. Likewise, his wife, even though we are not actually given an account of the breakdown of the marriage, but have to make do with the vague assertion that she betrays the narrator for another man.
In short, the narrator is surrounded by villains. Which I found pretty rich, considering that he is the one who is continuously messing up, for way longer than his bad start in life could ever continue to be used as justification.
After all, this is the same person who grows up into a sexually promiscuous teen who, by his own admission, has enjoyed intimacy with practically every female in his village (though he claims this changes upon marriage); the same person who hits a woman with his car and chooses to drive off while she lies dying on the road; the same person who plans a bank robbery… the list of less-than-savoury activities is a long one.
The fact that he gets the name of the woman whom he runs over tattooed on his thigh as a sign of remorse does little to convince me of his good faith. Probably because this anecdote is followed by another one, made all the more chilling due to the casual tone of the narration, where he tries to rape some other random girl he encounters on a dark road.
A number of days covered in the ‘journal’ bring us anecdotes from the narrator’s childhood. Needless to say, none of these anecdotes are joyful ones, such as the time when he steals something minor from the general store in his neighbourhood, causing his dad to beat his mother badly.
The story comes to its predicted end on September 13, hence the title – symbolic, perhaps, of ill-luck. De Battista’s is a tale that fails to wholly convince me, yet it is not without its pathos, with a strong dose of irony running throughout. And it does succeed in making the reader ask that all-important question: is there such a thing as good and evil, and how many ‘bad’ choices and lifestyles can be attributed to a particular upbringing?
Is anyone really in control of his own destiny, or is the course of our life pre-determined by events that shape us in our childhood? And at which point do we have to stop blaming the latter and start taking responsibility for our actions? Which is probably what the author intended all along, although it is a shame that a number of the plot devices that were used are somewhat clichéd.
An edited version of this review appeared on The Sunday Times.