Reviewing a life in a few words is demanding, but when it concerns one who has bloomed into an icon, it becomes almost impossible.
Giovanni Bonello has excelled in various fields, especially his incredibly daunting work on human rights and his prolific intriguing, researched and ever delightful publications. This 215-page book in Maltese, published by Horizons as part of the series ‘Bejn Storja u Miti’, is a potpourri of acclamations and testimonies by 18 writers and an excellent introductory essay by the editor Sergio Grech, all eulogising this outstanding personage.
Vanni, as old friends, including myself, call him, is a hero who occupied the front line not for a privileged seat but to carry the battering ram and breach the walls of those who sat in their ivory towers, trying to stampede the inalienable rights of many. He holds the record of defending 170 cases on human rights, and that was when the courts were not always warm to the idea of taking the state to task.
Was he fearless? If by fearless, one means bold, Vanni was all that. But fear of reprisals and threats (which he received galore) he must have felt in his heart of hearts. A hero is not one who feels no fear; that would be insensitively stupid. A hero, like Vanni, means having the grit to overcome fear, and make the other side reckon his weight. Kevin Aquilina offers us a clear account of Vanni’s work for human rights, his militancy as an agent of change, his crusade to establish the supremacy of the constitution, his work as legislative reformer, his personal philosophy of law. This aspect is echoed by other writers, such as Tonio Borg, who as a fresh lawyer was roped in by Vanni to help him research his defence of Mgr Philip Calleja way back in 1975. Those who just read Vanni’s exploits in these articles will get a glimpse of the man, but those who, like me, recall and lived those times, place those adventures within a living context and hence see Vanni the hero in present tense, not past. Way back in 1984, Vanni regularly wrote a whole page on the Sunday Times of Malta, exposing breaches of human rights, and this soon evolved into the mythical Page Thirteen every Sunday. That was the page which was read first.
His twelve-year stint in Strasbourg as Judge of the European Court of Human Rights was an extension of the Malta-Vanni, but moulded within an international scenario.
Vanni possesses complete command of the English language; literature is in his DNA. His literary expression is often personal, pungent and humorous, so in Strasbourg he frequently stunningly expressed his personal views in terms which were new to the judiciary world. What was normally a dry judgement, he turned into legal literature of the first kind, both in essence and style. His fellow judges wrote of him in glowing terms, such as ‘ my super hero’, gifted with the ‘rare distinction of being an amazing, stirring read.’ His dissenting judgements were exceptionally published by Judge (later Court President) Nicolas Bratza and leading authority on Human Rights law Michael O’Boyle, at a time when Vanni was still serving on the bench. First time ever!
Vanni is terrified of being mistaken, so he holds back until he is absolutely certain. He was always like this. Enrico Scicluna and Paul Xuereb, both lawyers and old friends, vouch for this in their very interesting contributions.
He has published a large number of articles, many of which have been included in his series of volumes Histories of Malta. These have earned him several Best Writer Awards in Malta. He is sometimes shocking (a nun murdering another nun), innovative (the correct surname of De Valette), bordering on the offensive, and lambasting revered or hallowed personalities, such as bishops, grand masters and several so-called heroes. But always supported with documentation.
A pioneer in introducing micro Maltese history, his contributions are always a pleasure to read. He does not merely expose facts but fashions his expressions in a particular Bonellian manner. He narrates history and does not fail to spray home-made interjections to emphasise a point. One particular sentence comes to mind. Writing about when the British agreed to send to France a collection in the Museum of Natural History, he comments: ‘The British paid a debt they did not owe with assets they did not own.’ Very apt. Very Bonellian!
And yet he insists he is not a writer. According to him, a writer deals with creativity and imagination. This is one of the very few points I disagree with Vanni. A writer is one who expresses his thoughts, facts, belief, disbeliefs in a fresh and entertaining manner, which entices the reader to continue. That is exactly Vanni, whatever he may care to say.
Maroma Camilleri, the gentle lady who has helped so many find their way through the meshed brambles of research in the Bibliotheca, and who very often is included in Vanni’s acknowledgments at the end of an article, relates Vanni’s methods of research and introduces us to the main classification of volumes left by the Knights.
In spite of what some may feel about Vanni, I know him as one who loves a good laugh, in spite of what his formal attire, inordinately grown moustache (and now also a beard) may mislead you to imagine. He can be a very outgoing person but Vanni has built an electrified double fence, protecting his innermost thoughts and feelings. I would have loved to read more about this aspect in this book. For example, he is quoted as saying that he has written many poems where he bares his inner-self, but is determined destroy them before he leaves humanity’s company. He is afraid we would know his fears, his doubts and his innermost soul. He is what I would call ‘solo nella folla’. All his Histories of Malta volumes contain an introductory short poem. That could have been an interesting article to start burrowing into the inner Vanni, unless of course he has published those short poems because they do not bare his soul. They are all exceptionally incisive. “You asked yourself: What do I lose / by dying ? Forgiving / the oblivion of submergence, I ask: / what do I lose by living?” Phrases like ‘I have a whole lifetime to die’ or ‘only in death there is tomorrow’, or ‘it is fatiguing to be dead’, or ‘ I have befriended death, and know a great desire of evening.’ Hauntingly evocative!
Even though he refers to the Bill of Rights in the Blood Constitution of 1961 as the spark which kindled his interest in human rights, I am sure the shamefully illegal exile of his father, Vincenzo, in Uganda with my cousin/uncle Herbert Ganado and company, grafted a wound in his heart which may have healed but has retained its scar. This book contains an excellent 34-page article by Simon Mercieca on Vincenzo Bonello. A gentleman, a true Christian, and art specialist if ever there was one. He was the first curator of Arts in the Museum Department and was instrumental in the opening of the first Museum of Arts. Vincenzo managed to acquire paintings by several well-known artists, including Honthorst, Stomers, Magnasco and Botticelli and added them to Malta’s national collection. Alas, this honour was short- lived. Without any charge or proof he was sacked from his office and exiled against the dictates of the Malta Courts which had considered these actions illegal. Vincenzo was instrumental in the opening of Malta’s first school of Arts which offered novel assistance to budding Maltese artists. He would have raised the art scene in Malta to much greater heights had not the foul- mouthed whispering of a Maltese gravitated such a wicked conclusion. Vincenzo Bonello deserves a fully-blown biography to place him on the pedestal he rightfully deserves.
Vanni is not only an established avid collector of old photographs but actually experiments with digital photography without retouching. Daniel Cilia shares with us some interesting results and hints at Bonello’s technique.
This book is not to be missed. Giovanni Bonello is determined not to write his autobiography. Some one else must do so. This publication is one small step in that direction.
By Philip Farrugia Randon