Hazel McHaffie

Malta

The Midwife of Venice

‘At midnight, the dogs, cats and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin … It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.’

How about that for an opening hook?

And this for a delightfully evocative spooky cover …

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich is an ambitious debut novel set in the sixteenth century. (Echoes of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are, I presume, deliberate.) Hannah Levi is a Jewish midwife famed throughout Venice for her exceptional skills. However, the law forbids her to attend a Christian woman, the penalties being severe, endangering not only Hannah personally, but the entire Jewish ghetto. It’s a time when anti-Semitism is rife: ‘if a sparrow falls from the sky in Venice, it is considered the fault of the Jews.’ So when a Christian nobleman, Conte di Padovani, appears at the door of her hovel in the Jewish ghetto in the dead of night, demanding her services for his wife, she is torn between a natural compassion and a fear of retribution. He offers her a handsome reward – sufficient money indeed to ransom back her husband, Isaac, who has been captured and held as a slave by the Knights in Malta.

Both the Contessa Lucia and her unborn son are near death by the time Hannah is summoned. If she were to fail to save them she would be in terrible jeopardy. But by some miracle and the application of her special instruments, the child is delivered. Alive. Just. Thwarting the machinations of the Conte’s greedy and feckless brothers who are poised to inherit everything if the child dies; leaving several people bent on revenge.

Hannah’s story in Venice is interspersed with Isaac’s experiences trying to escape his captors in Malta. Having been to both places, I found the scenes evocative, mesmerising and convincing. For me, the suspense in Venice feels more compelling than that in Malta, but there is the added tension of wondering whether this couple will ever see each other again. Hannah and Isaac parted after an argument. Desperately seeking to be reunited, to make reparation, they are thwarted at every turn. Will their joint disappointments and sadnesses ever end? As they both set sail towards each other on broiling seas we are held in suspense … even now will their paths cross cruelly as their respective ships plough on through turbulent waters?

Love, blackmail, murder, plague, intercultural tension, rescue … it’s a tale which rollocks along, weaving a tapestry of pictures of Renaissance Italy, and religious and cultural bigotry, and family rivalries.

The rigid discipline of ancient laws and entrenched customs forms an immovable spine for this book. Even when lives and happiness are a stake, the Jews fear disobeying their ancient codes and commandments. The Rabbi has been urging Isaac for years to divorce Hannah¬† because of her barrenness; now the Society for the Release of Captives is ready to release private funds to pay his ransom … if, and only if, he signs the divorce papers. Such inflexibility is a complete mystery to gentiles – as a Maltese man says to Isaac:¬† ‘Your laws are designed to create unhappiness.’ But they too have their own strong prejudices and suspicions.

For the most part the pace, the language, the style of writing, is entirely apposite for the period, and the glossary and biography at the back are testament to the care Rich has taken to ensure authenticity. However, I must confess I harboured a sneaky feeling that a few of the more modern expression or pithy insults might have been doctored for our more twenty-first century ears. But I might be entirely wrong.

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To see ourselves as others see us

Fear not, I don’t intend to bang on about Malta ad nauseam. In fact this is only my second, destined to be last, post on the subject.

But one thing struck me forcibly during our stay there. The friendliness and kindness of the people. Car drivers would stop – with a smile! – in the street to let pedestrians cross safely. Passengers would walk the length of the bus to give a perfect stranger with a troublesome cough, a soothing pastille. Shop keepers would run along to a bus stop to advise tourists of the right place to wait. The list of kindly acts we saw is too long to enumerate.

And it seems the Maltese have been famous for this for centuries as this church commemorates. The 'Shipwreck Church'The apostle Paul is said to have been shipwrecked on the north coast of the island (Acts 28: 1-11) – although because of maritime knowledge today, some experts doubt the actual location of his grounding. But the locals believe it big time, and Paul is their patron saint. They have statues and churches and roads and catacombs and bays and all sorts named after him.

One surprisingly understated chapel-like Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck in St Paul’s Bay is reputed to mark the site on which Paul and Luke kindled the physical and spiritual fire amongst the people they met when their ship ran aground here during his last journey to Rome. There are embossed plaques telling the story of the shipwreck in pictures and words on the outside of this building.One of the plaques

And one point struck me forcibly: The natives showed us unusual kindness.

The story goes that it was raining and cold when the mariners arrived, so the islanders built a fire to warm them. Paul gathered wood to help fuel it and a poisonous snake, driven out of cover by the heat, fastened on his hand. The islanders took this as a sign: he was a criminal trying to escape justice. Paul however shook the snake off into the fire and carried on as normal. The people watched with bated breath expecting him to swell up, fall down dead – something dramatic. When nothing happened they did a complete about turn and hailed him as a god.

Publius was the chief official on the island at the time and there are lots of references to him too, even today. In the biblical account he welcomed Paul and Luke into his home and entertained them well for three days. We visited a Roman villa from the first century in Rabat and it was obviously a very grand affair with wonderful statues and columns and mosaics. Paul in return healed Publius’ sick father of dysentery. This, not surprisingly, opened the floodgates: the rest of the sick folk on the island poured in looking for a cure. And were healed.

For three months the apostle stayed on Malta, and tradition has it that he declined to stay in sumptuous ease, preferring a cave (St Paul’s grotto) and simplicity instead. Paul's grottoWhatever, the people ‘honoured them‘ and sent them on their way with lots of provisions when they were ready to sail on. Leaving good feeling on both sides.

This friendliness was palpable everywhere we went on Malta and it made me wonder: How would we on our island be perceived? In our towns? During a disaster? On a miserable wet day? In our homes?

 

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Malta – holiday destination and ethical hotspot

Phew, I’ve just this evening returned from eleven nights on the island of Malta. Which is why my blog post is late this week. We’ve been on the return journey since the equivalent of 4.45 am so excuse lack of brio.

Anyway, I’ll give it a whirl. There I was, basking in temperatures in the twenties, letting my imagination run riot, happily scribbling a novel in my head. The amazingly history of Malta offers a richly colourful context, so I had this as my basic tapestry. Good start. My characters were soon escaping down the mysterious winding streets between these lovely honey-coloured stone walls … honey coloured stoneracing up the endless flights of steps …stepped streetscommandeering a passing horse-drawn carriage …passing carriagesdodging pursuers in the night-time shrubbery …statues at nightfleeing across the incredible turquoise Mediterranean Sea …The blue seaAnd then … ahah! In gift shops and airports and bookstores what did I find? Rows of novels all set in Malta.novels about Malta Joanna Trollope, Nicholas Monsarrat – oh, lots of different authors have jumped on this bandwagon already. And no wonder. The whole place cries out to be written about. So no mileage there. Best to just relax and have a real holiday.

But I held one trump card. A most unusual highlight just for me. I could actually set foot on the nearby island of Gozo. And there I met a lovely lady in a Maltese lace shop (pictured below) who knew the family at the centre of a huge ethical debate some eleven years ago when I was still working at the University. A case I followed very closely.

Michaelangelo and Rina Attard’s twin daughters were born conjoined, fused at the spine and abdomen. A British surgeon heard about their condition on a visit to Malta and wanted to help. A huge debate followed his intervention. The Roman Catholic church (which is the predominant religion on Gozo) strongly opposed the babies’ separation, believing such matters were best left in the hands of God. The parents were Catholics and followed this line too. But doctors and lawyers disagreed. A high profile court case ensued. The issues revolved around whether or not it was acceptable to save the life of one child at the expense of the other; and whether it was permissible to act against the parents’ wishes.

To cut a long story short, the girls were eventually separated here in Britain at the age of three months – exactly eleven years ago this November. One twin, Rosie, died in the process, but the survivor, Gracie, went back to this tiny Maltese island with its strong religious ethic, and is apparently still doing well, her neighbour told me.Lace Shop in GozoAfter all the hours spent thinking and talking and writing about this controversy back in 2000, it was a real thrill to listen to this lady in Gozo, in this very lace shop, telling me what she thought of the decision and the church’s stance. And to be just a few roads away from where the Attard family still live. A bit like standing on holy ground!

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