'Queen of Malta': fatalistic irony

June 20, 1999|By Victoria A. Brownworth | By Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

"The Jukebox Queen of Malta," by Nicholas Rinaldi. Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. $25.

It's April 1942: Corporal Rocco Raven, 21, a mechanic from Brooklyn, has been sent to Malta from Fort Benning. In a portent of things to come, he's nearly killed when enemy planes strafe the airfield as he lands, his life saved by the strange and elusive Lieutenant (soon to be Captain, Major, then Lieutenant Colonel) Jack Fingerly, from whom he'll take orders for the eight months he spends on the island.

Malta, positioned as it is between the North Coast of Africa and the heel of Sicily, has strategic merit -- and history. The British control the place and the Italians and Germans are determined to destroy it; Stukas and Messerschmits bomb Malta night and day. A small band of American and British soldiers and pilots maintain the battle.

Raven has been sent to Malta by accident; Fingerly was expecting someone named Kallitsky. The unit is I-3 -- Intelligence -- which Raven knows nothing about. Fingerly, who disappears at will and for long stretches, puts Raven in charge of incoming coded messages; Raven isn't even certain from whom or to whom the messages are being sent.

Raven distrusts Fingerly, who's never in uniform, deals in black-market antiquities and whose title changes with each successive trip. At times he wonders if Fingerly really exists -- or if he is who he claims to be.

But then nothing is as it seems on Malta in 1942. Bombs drop from the sky with a rapidity that has decimated the once-beautiful vistas; fatalism infects everyone: they hate the Germans who perpetuate the war but hate the Italians more for bombing Malta first; they feel used by and tired of the British.

In Rinaldi's vision, the scene on Malta epitomizes the futility, irrevocability and brutal -- as well as blackly humorous -- ironies of war. The RAF pilot Tony Zebra becomes the most decorated by sheer bad luck -- every time he flies planes fall out of the sky. Nardu Camilleri, a 90-year-old who brought down seven planes in World War I, sits guarding his tomatoes and squash with an ancient rifle, determined to defend Malta and return it to the Maltese so that lacemaking can become a world industry again. The clubfooted Zammit makes jukeboxes out of everything from stained glass and saints' relics to cannibalized enemy planes because music is the soul of life. Melita, his beautiful young cousin, delivers the boxes in an old pink hearse and tunes others throughout the island.

The heart of Rinaldi's tale is the love affair between Raven and Melita, who meet one day when he follows her to a bombed-out house on Windmill Street (Rinaldi's a bit heavy-handed on the metaphors) where, without speaking, they make passionate love. Soon they move into the place where they live with Melita's cat, Byron (the poet spent some time -- unhappily -- on Malta), until the day Raven gets shipped out.

"The Jukebox Queen of Malta" inevitably will call to mind books like Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" that focus on the incomprehensible tragedy of war. Like Heller's novel, there's humor in "Malta," though it's more Fellini-esque than Hellerian.

Rinaldi spins a good yarn and "Malta" is, more than a novel, a tapestry of small stories, vignettes woven into a lace of philosophizing and rumination, with a keen sense of place and history wefted in. But war lies at its core and thus there can be no happy ending; when Raven and Melita listen to Puccini and Verdi during the blackouts, it's a clear foreshadowing of tragedies to come.

"Malta" has its charms, though it seems to crest a bit on the success of "The Greatest Generation," "Saving Private Ryan" and other recent nostalgia of bygone war. Nevertheless, its an engaging though uncomplex read that will do nicely on the beach -- provided it's not Normandy.

Victoria A. Brownworth, who writes for many national publications, is the author of seven books and editor of seven -- the most recent book is "Night Shade: Gothic Tales by Women" (Seal Press), co-edited with Judith M. Redding.

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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