Sunday, 10 April 2011

Writings of Dimech newly discovered (I)

April 17th, 1921, was a Sunday. On that day, exiled from his country for the preceding six and a half years, Manuel Dimech, aged 60, died at the British military hospital of Victoria College, Alexandria, Egypt.(1) This year too, ninety years later, April 17 also falls on a Sunday. However, though back then the social reformer, polyglot, writer, poet and philosopher gave up the ghost without having a single friend or foe by his side, today he is fittingly remembered and honoured as one of Malta’s greatest 20th century heroes.

From the ranks

Dimech’s life was no joy-ride. Born at Valletta in 1860,(2) he lived during a time when the economic situation of the Maltese islands, then a British colony, was particularly dismal. Like thousands of others, this condemned Dimech to a boyhood of penury and illiteracy which, almost inevitably, begot vagrancy, petty thefts and a series of short spells in jail.

Later, however, Dimech was involved in a violent brawl which, alas, resulted in the death of another ragamuffin. Though Dimech had really caused grievous bodily harm to the lad, the youngster’s death was precipitated by injudicious after-care, especially by the police. Notwithstanding, jointly with another vagrant, Dimech was found guilty of murder. He only escaped the death penalty because he was still a minor. The other unfortunate was hanged.

Quite extraordinarily, all through his long incarceration Dimech learned to read and write, and went on to undertake serious studies in modern languages and become somewhat familiar to politics, philosophy, history, poetry, literature and the classics. He subsequently continued his remarkable education during a further stretch in prison following another unfortunate incident involving counterfeit coins.

To the stars

Dimech left the Corradino Civil Prison for good on July 31, 1897.(3) A month later he began providing adult language classes, and at the beginning of January 1898 launched a weekly paper called Il Bandiera tal Maltin (The Flag of the Maltese). Despite some interruptions, the paper continued to carry his public voice up till August 1914.

From the beginning, during his eleven-year career in the political arena (1898-1906; 1911-14), Dimech emerged as an obdurate defender of human rights and an organiser of people seeking social and political emancipation. Unlike other contemporary politicians, he dealt more with the structural causes of oppression than its effects, considering poverty not as natural phenomenon or divine will but rather as man-made. This is what made him different and a cut above average.

To enhance his work, after more than three and a half years in northern Italy, Dimech launched an organisation, Ix Xirka tal Imdawlin (The Fellowship of the Enlightened), which was something between a workers’ union, a political party and an institution for life-long adult education. This was a hundred years ago next October 21.(4) The fellowship’s radical philosophy, however, won him the Church’s condemnation(5) and excommunication.(6)

Exiled

After striking a truce with the Church, Dimech persisted in his political work with renewed vigour. His growing success with the working and middle classes, however, made him disliked by the British authorities. Eventually, at the onset of the First World War, they connived to remove him from the island.(7)

Dimech was first deported to Sicily.(8) For want of a better solution, he was than allowed to proceed to Egypt.(9) After a month there living like a pauper, he was locked up as a prisoner of war.(10) He remained incarcerated well after hostilities came to an end, right up till his death in April 1921.

During his six and a half years of captivity (1914-21), Dimech was detained twice within a prison, at three different concentration camps, and once within a lunatic asylum, all around Alexandria and Cairo. Though kept in poor and abject conditions, he always sought to keep himself occupied, mostly by teaching languages to inmates and learning new ones.

Death

In the meantime, back in Malta his wife and children – a son and two daughters – were reduced to utter destitution.(11) They were ejected from their home, and lacked proper clothing and food. Schooling was out of the question. The 12-year old son actually died of undernourishment.(12)

Dimech spent his last five months of his life half paralysed, bed bound, infested with parasites, constantly soiled and starving, and ill-treated by other patients.(13) Moreover, he was humiliated and forsaken. When he finally breathed his last, his body was tersely enfolded in the same bed sheets which he had lain upon, taken to a spot in the desert-land which surrounding the hospital, and consigned to a shallow hole in the sand. The grave had not even been marked.(14) Years later, the entire place was wiped out and urbanised.

During Dimech’s exile, various petitions for his release to the Governor of Malta (first Methuen, then Plumer) were made. All were refused.(15) Dimech was originally deported on the basis of martial law which was imposed due to war exigencies. However, when martial law was revoked after the war, his captivity and the refusal of repatriation became illegal and abusive. This had been recognised by none other than the Colonial office in London itself.(16)

Final writings

While Dimech waited out his terrible predicament, he stalwartly sought to soothe his spirit, think positively, and take life philosophically. Though this was his attitude throughout all his life, now, when evidently faced with the probability of an untimely and cruel death, this mind-set assumed imperative and urgent proportions. He was a man who would not allow his enemies to break his back or stoop him low.

It is with this mental and affective approach that Dimech penned his final writings (1917-20). At the time, he was imprisoned at the concentration camps of Kasir El Nil, in Cairo, and of Sidi Bishir, in Alexandria. The writings are basically of a philosophical nature, and have been unacknowledged up till now.

Of course, before being published the writings exacted attentive and minute investigation. Authenticity, internal and external corroboration, calligraphic consistency, and chronological accuracy had to be ascertained with absolute certainty. These can now be guaranteed, and the writings made finally public.

Significance

Manuel Dimech was an industrious type of person. During his six and a half years of captivity in Egypt, where he was exiled by the British authorities between 1914 and 1921, he always sought to engage himself in useful endeavours. Though his situation was grim and depressing, he taught modern languages to other inmates,(17) learned some new ones himself from self-teaching books (such as Japanese),(18) and also wrote.

These writings have been hitherto unacknowledged by Dimechian scholarship. They add considerable knowledge and depth to what we already know about Dimech’s philosophical prowess and his final years of exile. Though they still have to be analysed thoroughly and put to rigorous critical tests, in their crude form they present us with a window of insight into the psyche and mystique of the man.

The writings are of course a remarkable boon to Dimechian studies. They are not the only texts of Dimech which, though known to have existed, have gone missing. Un Nuovo Dio, for instance, a long ‘poemetto bernesco’ (satirical poem) published by Dimech in 1904,(19) is still to be tracked down.

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THE MANUSCRIPTS MENTIONED HERE HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED AND ARE ON SALE IN THE PUBLICATION APHORISMS: WISDOM OF A PHILOSOPHER IN EXILE.

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New manuscripts

The newly-discovered manuscripts come from the period between January 1917 and November 1920 (until Dimech was made redundant by apoplexy).(20) At the time, Dimech was held captive at two concentration camps: at Kasir El Nil in Cairo (till September 1917)(21) and at Sidi Bishir in Alexandria. Before, since June 1915, he was held at the Abbasiya Lunatic Asylum, in Cairo.(22) From the evidence we have,(23) it seems unlikely that Dimech engaged himself in any rigorous literary work during his stay at the asylum.

The writings we now have in our possession seem to have begun quite casually. Dimech was a person whose mind was incessantly disposed to rumination. Thus, being in possession of some books, he began to jot down aphorismic musings in page margins. It might be surmised that Dimech did this in various books. However, only one has been discovered so far. It is one of the two newly-located manuscripts revealed here, which, for the sake of convenience, is called Annotations.

When the marginal aphorisms became sufficiently copious, Dimech decided to copy them unto separate sheets of paper and prepare them for publication. Though Dimech’s original transcript is still missing, we have a transcript of it by Juan Mamo. This is the second newly-discovered manuscript revealed here. For reasons which will become clear later on, it is called Aphorisms.

Annotations

Juan Mamo (1886-1941) was a Maltese labourer who, since August 1913, worked in Alexandria.(24) He was briefly acquainted to Dimech before going there.(25) However, for all we know he was also the only Maltese national ever to visit Dimech in his captivity. Mamo’s employment exigencies permitted him to call every four weeks between September 1920 and March 1921.(26) Then he was transferred elsewhere and the visits stopped.

Mamo unfortunately missed being present when Dimech passed away.(27) However, it seems that shortly afterwards, as the closest person to a next of kin, Mamo was handed over Dimech’s personal belongings (including his wedding ring). He also received the Annotations.

This manuscript, bearing Dimech’s signature, contains an assortment of 430 succinct aphorisms and five poems or anecdotes written by Dimech in English. The writings, jotted down in minuscule calligraphy, are crammed haphazardly across some pages of a Japanese Conversation-Grammar. This book is authored by Hermann Plaut and was published in London in 1905 by Julius Groos.

It is evident that Annotations is a provisional work. Apart of its educational value, Dimech used Plaut’s publication (and probably others) as a note-book. Today this precious document is in the safekeeping of private owners.

Aphorisms

As Dimech’s interim inheritor, Mamo also received the manuscript which Dimech had been preparing for eventual publication. We know about the existence of this document from a reference to a lost letter which Dimech had sent to his family from Sidi Bishir.(28) In the letter he informed his wife and daughters that he ‘had composed a voluminous collection of poems, aphorisms, epigrams and anecdotes’, and that ‘its publication would eventually make them rich’.

Mamo planned to finish this incomplete work and publish it under his own editorship. There is incontestable evidence that Mamo, with Annotations in hand,(29) transcribed Dimech’s manuscript and, for editorial reasons, added to it personal embellishments. For example, at one point Dimech wrote in Annotations that ‘… a Maltese named Dimech would one day write the words I am writing’.(30) Mamo’s equivalent transcription in Aphorisms is identical except that he changes the last part, gracelessly stating that ‘… a Maltese named Dimech would one day say the words: I am saying; and that another, Maltese too, named Mamo, write the words: I am writing’.(31)

At another point in Aphorisms,(32) faced with an incomplete aphorism in Annotations,(33) Mamo explains away the fragmentary form of the aphorism by ludicrously adding a note, asserting: ‘His spirit throbbed violently and he convulsively muttered words between his clenched teeth which were incomprehensible’.(34) This was pure artistic licence.

One and the same

Having said all this, it can be safely concluded that, from references to Dimech’s lost letter mentioned above, from the title of Mamo’s transcription and from irrefutable internal corroboration it can be stated with certainty that the ‘voluminous collection’ referred to by Dimech and the manuscript we possess from Mamo’s hand, or at least the greater part of it, are one and the same work.

This work, Aphorisms, is a collection of some 2,673 aphorisms in English, most of which are short and snappy. All aphorisms found in Annotations (Dimech’s original record) are found in Aphorisms. Mamo was in London when he began transcribing Dimech’s original work. He himself indicates as much. After coming into possession of the document, Mamo was there between May and August 1922.(35) Later, he copied it neatly unto three ledgers which today are kept at the National Library in Valletta.

Apart of the significance of the aphorisms themselves, most of which are of a high philosophical nature, both manuscripts are remarkable because they attest to Dimech’s state of mind during his last years of exile. They also help us fill in substantial details to the storyline of his final fate.


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1 Public Registry Office , Kew, Richmond, Surrey (England), Foreign Office 371/6291/4729, 208, Eastern 260 (E. 4792/205/16).
2 St Paul Shipwreck Parish, Valletta, Register of Baptisms, Vol. XXII, f. 423.
3 National Archive of Malta [ANM]
, Rabat, CSG 01, Prisons 17105/97.
4 Dimech, Il Bandiera tal Maltin
[BTM], 21 ta’ Ottubru, 1911, 2ċ.
5 Archive of the Archdiocese of Malta [AAM], Floriana
, Editti di Monsignor Pietro Pace, vol. 35, f. 86, doc. 1.
6 AAM, Editti di Monsignor Pietro Pace, vol. 35, f. 88, ad term.
7 ANM, Political 3688/14, no. 14; see G. Azzopardi, X’Ġarrab Manwel Dimech (1975), 86.
8 ANM, Customs Department Records, L383.
9 ANM, Consular 4568/14, Despatch 113 (Red 1-2); Despatch 119 (Red 5). See also Despatch 122 (Red 8-9).
10 ANM, LG Papers M 608/15, Dimech’s; see G. Azzopardi, Għejdut Manwel Dimech (1978), 233, and private archive, Dimech’s letter to McBain of March 28, 1915.
11 See ANM, D 513/16, Red 1-3.
12 ANM, Military 4350/19.
13 G. Azzopardi, private archive, Dimech’s letter to McBain of November 1920.
14 Azzopardi 1975, op. cit., 148.
15 ANM, Miscellaneous 90/17, Despatch 11834/249(G), Red 8, Red 9-10, Military 4350/19; S-of-S 339/20, No. 20; ANM, Telegram 22.3.21 (at PRO, FO 371/6291/4729, 203), 83/21; and PRO, Colonial Office
158/419/4729, Malta 225 (S-of-S 226/20).
16 PRO, CO 158/423/4526, Malta 4854.
17 G. Azzopardi, X’Ġarrab Manwel Dimech (1975), 86.
18 M. Dimech, Annotations
[Ann.].
19 BTM, 20 ta’ Mejju, 1905, 4ċ.
20 G. Azzopardi, private archive, letter presumably to McBain of November 1920; and Juan Mamo’s letter of Novembru 24, 1920.
21 National Archive of Malta
, Miscellaneous 1594/17; Military 4350/19; D 309/20; Dimech, Ann., pp. 127-8; and ANM, D 309/20.
22 ANM, Miscellaneous 90/17, Red 5.
23 See ibid.
24 BTM, October 11, 1913, 2ab.
25 Ibid., April 19, 1913, 4b.
26 See M. Montebello, Dimech (2004), 521 and 535.
27 Ibid., 541.
28 H. Frendo, ‘Maltese exile in Egypt’ (2001), The Sunday Times [of Malta]
, April 22 and 29, May 6 and 13, part II, 40ċ.
29 This is absolutely clear from Aphorisms
[Aph.]. 1064 and Ann. 391.
30 223.
31 680.
32 1064.
33 391.
34 Mamo adds an identical note in Aph. 1140, which corresponds to the fragmentary Ann. 432.
35 F. Galea (2007), Juan Mamo: Ħajtu u ħilietu, 119.


 

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