Published: 26 Jul 2021

Architect Konrad Buhagiar brings HOMEWORKS his personal library, inspired by a combination of strong emotions and bright landscapes.

If you were to ask me what the colours of my library are, it would, at first, seem like a bizarre question. Still, I would not hesitate to say that they are most definitely the colours of summer: yellow and blue and white – the ochre of limestone rocks and rusticated walls, the ultramarine of the Mediterranean Sea and the bright white walls of cool and shaded courtyards. This is what springs to mind when I think of my books, and I’ll try to explain why.

I laid the foundations of my library in one of those prolonged hot summer months that separated one academic year from the other; the slow-paced, lingering days that were our school holidays, days that were all identical except for the changing of the direction of the wind, the alternating rih fuq and rih isfel, and the size of the breaking waves that determined how long, and how far out my brothers and I could swim during our daily visits to the rocky beach at the foot of the street where we lived.

Those were the awkward adolescent years following our ‘O’ Levels when Malta was still newly-forged, still isolated from the rest of Europe, and slowly and clumsily negotiating its traditions, its centuries-old spiritual values, with an uncertain and alien future. As it painfully divested herself of foreign supremacy, the nation was already assuming virile self-determination and materialistic drive, too fresh, however, to be noticed then. In those youthful years, a carefree air still dominated our lives, protected by the strange, subdued, maternal beauty that characterised Malta in those pre-consumerist days.

Distractions were few and simple. Only reading was as powerful, all-consuming and entertaining as swimming. Our time was divided equally between physical activity on the beach and its intellectual counterpart in the shady interiors, or in the walled and leafy garden, of our house in Sliema. Strategically positioned between an open door and open window to catch the breeze, I indulged in that solitary activity that projected my reality out and far away from the small and sleepy world we inhabited.

This displacement, however, was not only geographical. My father, a devout Catholic who believed deeply in the political and social mission of the Church, was my unprompted book dealer and, as I look back on the novels that he brought home for me to read, I can only admire his determination to throw me into the deep end. Camus, Greene, Mauriac and Boll lured me like a moth to a flame, seducing me with the scarlet and black ‘existentialist’ mysteries of life: desire and control, the imperatives of ‘is’ and ‘seems’, the fluidity of good and evil, and the overlapping definitions of the sinner and saint.

Those obscure ambiguities were like fodder for my hungry head and matched both my inquisitive nature and the secret searching typical of my unsettled age. But thankfully, it was balanced by a routine dive into the icy-cool water of early June or into the flat-calm, silky September sea. Resurfacing and looking towards the shore, I would rediscover, through salt-blurred vision, the bright sunlight reflecting on the ochre rusticated sea-walls, the undulating rows of the two-storey terraced house above and the sharp shadows they cast on the rounded rocks and the fish-filled pools at the water’s edge. Then I was plunged into a blue moment that was ageless and thrown back into a perfect, vigorous present.

My library grew throughout my university years, becoming robust with volumes on architectural history and theory. It was only several years later, however, when I moved to Rome to pursue my studies in Architectural Restoration, that I discovered in the Eternal City the perfect backdrop for my wistful musings on the uncertainties of life combined with the sensual pleasures that it offers. Albertina, my girlfriend, introduced me to Italian literature of the Modern period, Moravia and Brancati, Vittorini and Pavese. But no books express better to me that mixture of sensuous summer light and colour and the tragedy at the heart of life than Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and Morante’s L’Isola di Arturo. The grief of Hadrian at the death of his young lover Antinoos and that of Arturo when he is old enough to comprehend his father’s betrayal are set against the same poetic pale limestone landscape that shapes life on Malta.

I could say that, at its core, my library is fashioned by a similar combination of strong emotions and bright landscapes.