Because of a planned visit to Malta next year, I googled “books set in Malta” and began with this one. It is remarkably good at putting you in the place and I feel I have walked the hill of Valetta, wandered through Sliema, and taken the ferry to Gozo myself. The main character is a priest who honors his noble birth and ancient family, but prefers the humble life of caring for his people. And he’s called on for much caring as he lived through the bombing and siege of World War II. The Italians began bombing in 1941 with the Germans joining in so fiercely that the George Cross was awarded to the island early in 1942 by King George.
When the church Father Salvatore had been building for years was destroyed on the first day of bombing, he moved the alter to the nearby Cottonera Lines, part of the city’s fortifications built in the 17th and 18th centuries. In this novel people sheltered there in the catacombs along with hundreds of friars who had been in residence for centuries. As the siege wore on, finding food, taking in more whose homes were bombed, and generally trying to manage this underground community was the work of the beloved Father Salvatore.
The structure of the book is admirable. Chapters detailing a particular day for Father Salvatore during the war alternate with stories he strategically tells those who live in the catacombs when their spirits need to be raised. The six chapters are labeled “hexameron,” referring to the six days of creation; these stories are about key moments in Malta’s history. The first brings the Phoenicians’ connection to Malta to life (Wikipedia was useful here to remember a bit about the Phoenicians). The second tells the story recounted by Luke in Acts, Chapter 27 when he and Paul were shipwrecked in 60, on an island believed to be Malta. The subjects of the remaining four are:
- After 220 years of rule by the Saracens, Roger the Norman, Count of Sicily, expelled them in 1090.
- The Great Siege of 1565 was the siege and invasion by the Turkish against the Knights of the Order of Saint John. The Turks were repelled with the help of the Maltese and late-arriving help from the Viceroy of Sicily.
- On his way to invading Egypt, Napoleon secured Malta in 1798, especially to keep it from Nelson. After a significant naval defeat in Egypt for Napoleon, Maltese citizens and troops rebelled against the French and with the aid of the British, expelled them.
- A story from 1917 told of the arrival of a ship commanded by Andrew Browne Cunningham into the Grand Harbour near the end of the Great War. A year and a month after Father Salvatore told the story, the arrival of a ship in 1943 commanded by Admiral Cunningham signaled the end of the war for Malta.
Father Salvatore’s experiences of the war include the stories of his grand dame mother and the fading of her perfect world. His sister married an unpleasant fellow who preferred an alliance with the Italians rather than the British, a preference that brings great tribulation to the family. A sweet love story develops between the daughter and a young British pilot. The priest’s own struggles of faith come to light. These and other personal stories bring life to the gruesome facts of war with its relentless misery.
I learned that this British author (1910-1979) is best known for his sea stories.
Nicholas Monsarrat, The Kappillan of Malta, William Morrow & Company, 1974, 503 pages. Available at the public library and from Amazon.