In 1928 he became assistant editor of the Maltese Labour Party’s newspaper Il Cotra (The Crowd) and its editor two years later. During this time he authored a number of short stories in another newspaper called Il-Ħmar (The Ass). These stories were condemned by the Catholic Church and the police took the director and the editor of the newspaper to court. They were fined for publishing the stories but, on appeal, charges were dropped.
Ellul Mercer believed that having managed to rebuild the country’s social and economic structures following the Second World War entitled the Maltese to entertain a positive outlook on life. A solid education and a social conscience were crucial to building a better future.
In what is considered to be his most important work, the novel Leli ta’ Ħaż-Żgħir (Empire Press, 1938), Ellul Mercer delivers a poignant tale about a bright, young man (the eponymous Leli) whose prospects are dashed because of the narrow-mindedness of the community in which he lives. The inhabitants of Ħaż-Żgħir (which roughly translates as Smallborough) have an overall mistrust of anything new or that lies beyond the confines of the village. They find comfort in sameness and repetition; anything else is viewed as a threat to their livelihoods or the existing social structure. The novel was translated in 2003 by Godwin Ellul as Shadows of the Truth.
Ellul Mercer was interested in the psychological truth that lurks underneath the social conventions of village life, and the price one pays when challenging these unspoken rules. Leli reads philosophical texts, recommended to him by his mentor, which expose the fallibility of the social and spiritual righteousness he was brought up with. This creates a chasm between him and the community, which results in Leli being shunned by his friends and family. His inability and/or refusal to assimilate his newfound knowledge with a social ethic drives him to madness, with Leli finally paying the ultimate price for his defiance of the status quo. For Ellul Mercer, any form of self-improvement that excludes one’s social responsibilities and commitments is bound to fail. This is a contradiction in terms. The two must go hand-in-hand for the individual to become a valuable member of society.
It is a sad irony that Ellul Mercer had to experience an estrangement similar to that of Leli. When Ellul Mercer died, on the 22nd of September 1961, Archbishop Michael Gonzi and Prime Minister Dom Mintoff were at loggerheads over the proposed separation of Church and State. As a consequence, Gonzi decreed that members of the Labour Party were to be interdicted. Ellul Mercer, who had refused to betray the party which best defined his personal beliefs, was thus refused a religious burial. He was interred in the (then) non-consecrated section of the Addolorata Cemetery known as “Il-Miżbla” (“The Rubbish Dump”).
Biography written by Noel Tanti
Project co-ordinator: Clare Azzopardi
With the help of: Kirsty Azzopardi, Leanne Ellul and Albert Gatt
Proofreader: Dwayne Ellul