Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Enchanted Island Under Siege

I believe that, among the great war novels set in the military during or leading into World War II, are Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead (1948), James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (1951), and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961).  To this group of novels, I would now add Nicholas M. Rinaldi’s The Jukebox Queen of Malta (1999).  It’s a superb piece of fiction that offers me the added delight of hinting at the geological and paleontological wonders of the island of Malta.

On May 27, 2020, novelist and poet Rinaldi died at the age of 86 from COVID-19.  (Nicholas Rinaldi, Writer of Character-Rich Novels, Dies at 86, Sam Roberts, The New York Times, June 11, 2020.)  In the days following his death, through his novel, Rinaldi has guided me on a journey around Malta, an island in the Mediterranean, some 60 miles from Sicily.

(This map is in the public domain and can be found at Wikimedia Commons.)

Malta, the largest of a small string of islands in an archipelago (now making up the Republic of Malta), is graced with protected deep water ports and towering limestone cliffs.  Given its central location in the Mediterranean, Malta, then a British colony, endured an unrelenting aerial bombardment by the Italians and Germans from June, 1940, to November, 1942, a prolonged firestorm that sought to dislodge the British forces on the island and secure the marine supply line to German troops fighting in North Africa.  According to Rinaldi, this onslaught involved an amount of explosives far surpassing that dropped on London during the German blitz of 1940.

(This picture shows bombed buildings in Valletta, May 1, 1942.  It is in the public domain and can be found at Wikimedia Commons.)

That Malta would be at the center of warring forces in World War II should come as no surprise:  the islands have been fought over and occupied since time immemorial by, among others, Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Turks, Knights of Malta (Hospitallers), the French, and the British.

Malta has deep roots in Western culture.  According to the New Testament (Acts 28), early in the Christian Era, the ship carrying Paul as a prisoner to Rome was wrecked on Malta.  As the story goes, when the natives of the island built a fire to warm the castaways, Paul gathered brushwood which he tossed into the flames.  A viper escaping the heat bit him.  A sure death thought the Maltese, concluding that Paul was clearly a murderer and receiving the justice he deserved.  When the bite had no effect on him, “they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.”

Even older roots may tie Malta to Homer’s Odyssey, particularly for those scholars who have spent countless years and pages trying to trace Odysseus’ voyage home to Ithaca from Troy on maps of the Mediterranean.  Malta is sometimes equated with the epic poem’s island of Ogygia on which the nymph Calypso held an enchanted Odysseus prisoner for seven years.

All of this backstory sets the stage for Rinaldi’s The Jukebox Queen of Malta, its action occurring on the island during April to November of 1942.  This tour de force is, as critical reviews of the novel note, evocative of Heller’s Catch -22, but it’s hardly a derivative work.  It stands solidly on its own with a story arc that, though at times as absurd and darkly hilarious as Heller’s novel at its best, tells a different story in a different way.  This is not a sprawling tale of war with countless subplots, rather the novel nearly always keeps a relatively tight focus on the romance between our hero, radioman Corporal Rocco Raven, an auto mechanic from Brooklyn, and our heroine, jukebox seller and repairer Melita Azzard.  Unlike Catch-22 with its portrayal of the pervasive, irrational, and pernicious control of the military over most of its characters, in The Jukebox Queen, Rocco, though a member of the U.S. Army, feels its direct influence only sporadically.  Yes, admittedly, it is the Army that sends him to Malta (in error) at the outset and the Army that orders him to leave at the end.

Rocco is on Malta to help a small contingent of American intelligence operatives led by a Major Webb who, it would seem, was killed just before Rocco’s arrival.  As a result, Lieutenant Jack Fingerly, wearer of tropical sport shirts on which he pins the insignias of his rank (a rank that somehow moves continual upward as he travels to and from the island during the blitz), is Rocco’s commanding officer.

The island is magical and possibly so are some its inhabitants or visitors.  Melita (whose name in Latin means honey and was the Romans’ name for the island) at certain moments manifests a dreamlike quality for Rocco – disappearing into searing light, shrinking to nothing, or walking through walls.  Is she the novel’s Calypso, ensnaring the hero and holding him prisoner?  Perhaps in some ways, but, in general, I think not.  These two are, it seems to me, genuinely in love despite all of the complexities that this brings under the circumstances.  Rocco and Melita are not as unlikely a couple as they might first appear.  Beyond their sexual attraction, they share interests, and are caring and insightful about each other (well, perhaps, as best any one person can be of another).  Both are familiar with the arts, he knows some philosophy and literature, particularly Edgar Allan Poe, she knows much of the classical English canon and was once a student of Renaissance art.  Their relationship feels real.

Fingerly is another with mystical qualities, a shape-shifter often disappearing for long periods, once in awhile returning with new orders for Rocco which are not always obeyed.  Rocco remains unsure of who or what Fingerly actually is, what he is about.  At one moment, early on, Rocco seems to see Fingerly dissolve into smoke.  A statement follows (thought by Rocco or perhaps provided by an omniscient author):  “Malta was doing this – everything shifting, turning, uncertain.”

Whether and how the romance at the center of the novel might transcend the wartime chaos that surrounds the lovers fuels the novel’s dramatic tension.  It plays out against the backdrop of the incessant aerial attacks that find targets to level even as everything seems already destroyed.  Yet, even though, at any moment, death will come from the sky, the people on the island continue to live their lives as best they can, sometimes retreating to underground shelters, other times not.  Food and fuel run short, and water and electricity are often unavailable, nevertheless, there are nightclubs and bars serving customers in wrecked buildings; buses running (albeit intermittently and often targeted by the enemy planes); stores open though with little to sell; and the marvelous jukeboxes being built by Melita’s cousin to be sold and serviced.  Life goes on, love goes on, regardless that all of it might end, is likely to end, unexpectedly and explosively.

The novel poses a fundamental question – does the world care about us, about anything we do, the wars we wage, the love we feel, about the deals we make, the families we create?  The ancient Nardu Camilleri, doorman for a brothel, who lingers near death for the latter portion of the novel, has a grand vision for his homeland.  Early in the novel, he tells Rocco:

Mark my words!  As soon as the war is over, we declare our independence and we throw out the English.  Then we annex Italy.  Sicily we don’t want, it’s too full of thugs and mafiosi.  Rome we give to the pope, but the rest of Italy is ours.  We will call it Greater Malta.

Yet Nardu, close to the novel’s end, says to Rocco:

The earth . . . this earth we live on, has been around for millions of years.  Against all of that, the vastness of time, what is a human life?  We are nothing, not even a whisper.

This isn’t the novel’s answer to that question, at least, not the full response.  As always in the world that Rinaldi has created and set in the mayhem of Malta, there’s some other note of magic that may be struck, a different take, another angle . . . even from Nardu.  He, who posited that a human life is not even worth a whisper, immediately reaches out and touches Rocco’s arm and says:

But the lace trade . . . there is a future in it, it’s worth investing. We talked about that before, did we not?  Buy cheap, sell dear.  That’s the whole secret to existence.

There’s so much more to this novel, so much more to explore, including the real people and events with which Rinaldi populated it.  But, to justify writing about this wonderful novel in this blog, I will describe briefly how it opened doors for me to the geological and paleontological marvels of the island.  The island is enchanted in those terms as well.

Rinaldi knows the geology and paleontology (and archaeology) of this place, offering irresistible signals prompting me to learn more.  In the novel, he observes that the buildings on Malta, those still standing and those now rubble during the siege, are made of limestone.  The island itself is made mostly of limestone.  Ah, a sedimentary rock composed of calcium carbonate, the stuff of shells, of fossils.  The graph below, showing all of the bedrock of the island which ranges in age from the Oligocene to the Miocene, is based on one appearing in The Geology of Malta and Gozo by H.M. Pedley et al. (Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, Volume 87, Issue 3, 1976.  This paper resides behind a paywall.)  Gozo is the second largest of the Maltese islands.

Atop the bedrock in various places are Pleistocene deposits (more on what that they have to offer in a moment).  Most important, all of the bedrock shown in the graph is limestone in nature.  Anywhere the bedrock outcrops on Malta is a potential paradise for fossil hunters.  Pedley’s description of the each of these formations bears that out.  The Lower Coralline Limestone is full of benthic foraminifera fossil shells, fossil corals, and fossil mollusks, as well as echinoids and brachiopods.  Across the wide breadth of the Globigerina Limestone, it offers up not only shells from those eponymous foraminifera, but also echinoids, gastropods, and various bivalves, along with fossils from extinct crocodiles, turtles, and seals.  Perhaps most engaging for the typical fossil collector, this formation contains fossil teeth from myriad sharks, including megalodons, makos, and snaggletooths.  The Blue Clay yields mostly “microfauna or crushed specimens of macrofauna,” although in the upper levels of the formation, one can find corals, mollusks, echinoids, and disarticulated remains of cetaceans..  The Greensand seems less productive though even here are bivalves and echnoids, along with some vertebrate remains.  The Upper Carolline produces bivalves, echinoids, bryozoan colonies, and brachiopods.  The mind reels.

Pedley has something to say about the quaternary deposit on the island which fill in caverns and fissures.  Some of these are “Pleistocene bone deposits.”

Within these beds occur prolific remains of hippopotami, pygmy elephants and swans.  Deer and horse occur in slightly younger deposits.  Many fissure deposits in Malta contain faunas of land-snails, deer and remains of the giant dormouse.  All these remains suggest that climatic condition were more temperate than today, with perennial stream-systems and abundance vegetation.  It is likely that land connections with Sicily occurred at this time.

And here’s Rinaldi on the treasures of the Pleistocene deposits.  Fingerly takes Rocco with him as he journeys to the western end of the island to await the return of Maroon, a member of the intelligence unit who has been on Gozo with a mission from Fingerly.  Maroon is coming alone in a powerboat, crossing the three-mile channel that separates Gozo from Malta.  It’s sunset, a time when, it’s hoped, pilots of enemy fighter planes will have a hard time zeroing in on targets in the channel.  Fingerly and Rocco watch for Maroon using binoculars.  When he comes into view mid-channel, they discern a large box tied to the back of the boat.

The sun was sinking, a big red ball, half of it already gone.  It did crazy things with the sky, igniting the clouds into a blaze of color.  It did things to the water too, casting a rosy sheen that faded to violet and black.

“He should have taken the ferry,” Fingerly said anxiously.  “I told him to take the ferry.”

“What’s in the box?” Rocco asked.


“Whose bones?”

“An elephant, Raven.  A pigmy elephant.”

Rocco thought about it, then said, “There is no such thing as a pigmy elephant.”

“Not now, no.  But there was.  In the Pleistocene, and they were right here, in this neck of the woods.”  He worked at the binoculars, adjusting the focus.  “That’s what’s in the box, a mini-elephant.  Not a baby elephant but a full-grown beast the size of a St. Bernard.  They have one in the Smithsonian – ever see it?”

And then a German Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane appears.

The stamp below from Malta, issued in 2009, features the fossil skeleton of a Maltese pygmy elephant, Elephas falconeri.

Clearly, I was enchanted by Rinaldi’s novel which deserves to be read for a long time to come.

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