Tuesday, September 20, 2022

48. The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat

Monsarrat continues to deliver.  He is making a place for himself in my pantheon of favourite writers.  I haven't read a dud by him yet and he works in a range of genres.  The Kappillan of Malta is the story of a priest in what was known as Fortress Malta during WWII.  It's also a story of Malta itself.  The book opens in the 60s (contemporary from when the book was published) with a narrator taking a touristic trip to Gozo, a smaller island to the north of Malta.  There he encounters a massive funeral for a priest and he meets an old giant pushing a one-legged dwarf in a wheel chair. This odd pair relates the story of Father Salvatore.  This is the bulk of the book, with Father Salvatore dealing with his aristocratic family (and supporting his mother who barely holds their estate together), the judgemental church elders and his flock sheltering in giant catacombs as Malta is blockaded and bombed.

The book is structured around the historical sermons that the priest delivers to lift morale.  These are interludes that allow Monsarrat to relate several important chapters in Malta's history where they dealt with war and invasion and survived.  Each was a great little mini-fictionalized history, informative and entertaining.  I learned a lot about Malta, of which I was almost totally ignorant.  It's also quite moving, with many great characters, especially Nero the super positive dwarf.  His introduction, as the only voice of spirit during a boat ride after the first bombing, is particularly compelling. "Nero wheeled round, and began to run and jump and skip up the street, as if he could not wait to confront his next problem."  There are no direct antagonists, but the two most hateful characters: manipulative and small-minded monsignor Scholti and traitorous brother-in-law Lewis Debrincat are extremely effective.  There is also a romance between his niece and a cliched but still well-drawn rakish British pilot.

It has a relaxed narrative, confident that the situation itself is compelling, not needing forced conflicts.  I found myself caught up in Father's Salvatore's various plights and problems, even his spiritual agonizing.  Great read.


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