For many years after his death on the 28th of April 1941, Juann Mamo was all but forgotten. It was mainly thanks to the efforts of the late Professor Oliver Friggieri that his work now commands the attention and respect that it rightly deserves.

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Born in Luqa on the 28th of September 1886, Mamo lived a distinctly picaresque life that included: over six years in prison for attempted murder; a late friendship with controversial writer, philosopher and social reformer Manwel Dimech; several trips to Europe; a published book about magic, potions and sorcery; and a book about obstetrics that got him into trouble with the Church as a result of its graphic illustrations. He maintained this momentum till the very end – in fact, his lifeless body was found at the bottom of a deep valley after being reported missing for several days. The circumstances of his death remain unexplained to this day.

Early on in his life, Mamo vowed not to be tied to any political ideology, believing that ultimately it was always the poor and the downtrodden who suffered, irrespective of which party was in power. His beliefs led to seemingly contradictory views, such as supporting the Workers’ Party while commending the British rule under Gerald Strickland.

A central image that underpinned Mamo’s beliefs about the world was the conflict between darkness and light. According to him, darkness was the dearth of opportunities for self-improvement and the wilful suppression of education that the privileged imposed upon the masses. This included limiting access to information about foreign current affairs. Light, on the other hand, was the wisdom and open-mindedness that resulted from education, and the acquisition of skills that prevented one from falling prey to fanaticism and ideology.

The darkness/light dichotomy can be seen throughout his magnum opus, Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka (Grandma Venut’s Offspring in America), a series of darkly humorous tales about a group of Maltese nationals who travel all the way to America in order to ‘make it big’ and return wealthy and prosperous. These are undercut by a biting satire that displays the tragedy behind being accorded a golden opportunity without having the means or the acumen to appreciate it. From the outset, Mamo establishes the exploitative nature of the entitled elite, personified in the character of a greedy notary who, despite being aware of the hardships that common people face on a daily basis, thinks nothing of overcharging them for his services.

However, Mamo is quick to point out that it is not merely a matter of the system failing these characters; they too are responsible for their misfortune. Despite being given a fighting chance to start anew in the land of the free and the home of the brave, they self-sabotage every step of the way. They are too set in their ways and keep repeating past mistakes which lead them nowhere. So much so that Filiċ, the brightest of the lot, simply ups and leaves the group, seeking a better life for himself without being weighed down by his compatriots.

Mamo was the kind of critic whose iconoclastic outlook, at some point or another, irked almost everyone. However, ultimately it is this intransigent voice, coupled with his undeniable literary skills, which earned him a place in the pantheon of great Maltese authors.

Biography written by Noel Tanti



Supported by

Arts Council Malta

Creative Industries Platform

Project co-ordinator: Clare Azzopardi

With the help of: Kirsty Azzopardi, Leanne Ellul and Albert Gatt

Proofreader: Dwayne Ellul

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