Homage to Laurent Ropa – the Maltese, 1891-1967
The islands of Malta experienced an increase in migration to North Africa in the second half of the 19th century. The local economy lacked the resources to feed an ever-growing population, making the agrarian sector the main provider of food. However, even this sector did not live up to expectations because it depended on the weather, coupled with diseases that raged from time to time in the breeding.
Government jobs were scarce and many people were unemployed, and thus reduced to a life of misery and disease. Thus, people began to look for employment in the Mediterranean coastal countries, in particular in the countries occupied by France such as Tunisia and Algeria.
Born in Xagħra, Giuseppe Rapa emigrated to Algeria when he was still a teenager in search of work and a better life. He managed to find a job in Bône [now known as Annaba], a port city in the northeast corner of Algeria, near the border with Tunisia, and returned to Gozo from time to time.
It was during one of these trips that he met his future wife, Carmela Spiteri – a lace worker – with whom he married on November 20, 1886, at the parish church of Xagħra. Giuseppe again emigrated to Algeria on his own to work and sent money to support his new family. In the first five years of their marriage, they had two children Antonio on July 6, 1889 and Lorenzo on Christmas Day 130 years ago in 1891.
In search of a stable job while facing the emotional difficulty of being separated from his family for long periods of time, Giuseppe decides to take his whole family with him and to settle permanently in Algeria, despite the discomfort. voiced by his young wife. . The youngest of the children, Lorenzo, later known as Laurent, was only two years old when he left Gozo, never to return.
On arrival in Algeria, an administrative turn left forever an imprint on the family name. When asking Giuseppe for his last name, the passport officer at the port of Bône noted it down as “Ropa” when he first heard it pronounced in the Gozitan dialect. Eventually the family settled in Hippone in Allelick (Annaba), a village near Bône, when the father rented tracts of land to grow fruits and vegetables for sale in the market.
The Ropa family had six children, namely Antonio, Lorenzo, Marì, Salvatore (who would later become Dominican brother Pio Rapa), Agostino and Speranza. The Ropa family suffered the loss of their beloved young mother at the age of 42 in 1909, leaving the last toddler, barely two years old. She is buried in Bône. At the end of World War I, all the children, including the father, except Salvatore, emigrated and settled in France. In his old age, the father returned definitively to his native village of Xagħra.
The childhood and education of Laurent Ropa are better described in his novel The Song of Noria (“The song of the water mill”) published in 1932. The novel is inspired by his childhood environment and the difficulties encountered by his parents. Being the second child in the family, he and his older brother Antonio gave a helping hand to the well-being of their family.
At the age of six, he began attending school, located four miles from the family home. He walked to and from school every day. From the age of eight, Laurent and his brother Antonio work for a brickyard or as dockworkers to unload the bricks sent from Marseille to the port of Bône. Laurent also worked as a street vendor of fruits and vegetables for a while. This work was carried out during school days. In his own words: “Soon, with my brother (Antonio), we took advantage of the car that transported the vegetables to the market: getting up at three in the morning every morning … Thursdays and during the holidays of he summer I was the keeper of the noria – it was to prevent the horse or the mule on duty from stopping – and I led the oxen to the fields.
At the age of 12, Laurent began to take an interest in studying books. “I was already making verses. My teacher used to insist that I go back to class. Despite the misery that afflicted his family at this early stage of his life, Laurent took the entrance examination to the Ecole Normale de Constantine, which he successfully passed.
On March 15, 1913, Laurent, 22, still a British subject, was neutralized as French. A year later, at the dawn of the First World War, with a formal education, he was enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Zouaves regiments and sent to the front in France. He was wounded twice and ended the war as a lieutenant in Tunisia where he was demobilized. He received the Military Medal and the Croix de Guerre.
While recovering from his first injury in a hospital in Sarthe, France, he met his future wife, Marguerite Gervaiseau, a teacher by profession, who was working as a nurse at the time. They were married on February 7, 1917, at the church in his wife’s native village, Piacé, in the Sarthe department, in northwestern France. They established their matrimonial home in this small village. Laurent was a teacher at Piacé and was promoted to principal until his retirement after 21 years in the education service. They had two children, Denis and Edith.
Laurent showed from an early age a pronounced taste for literature. The culture and the French language were his main reference: “To write is to meditate, pray, sing. He wrote down his first poems in French at the age of 14. His early literature is strongly influenced by the writings of the French poet and writer Victor Hugo.
In 1932, Laurent published his first novel The Song of Noria, followed by Kaline and Bou Ras in 1936 and 1960 respectively. The first novel was very well received and critically acclaimed. He described the often miserable life of Maltese emigrants in Algeria. This publication was then translated into Maltese by Joseph Aquilina and published in 1971. The novel is considered by the Franco-Algerian novelist Robert Randau as “one of the most beautiful books written on Algeria”. In the other two novels, Laurent prides himself on his family origins and his patriotism.
Laurent extended his literary prowess to the promotion of Maltese culture and identity in Algeria and France. Throughout his activities he has maintained relationships with members of Maltese emigrants from all over the world through the culture and development of the Maltese language. Sometimes he was surprised and unhappy that the Maltese living in Algeria felt proud to become French citizens and were quick to get rid of their national language. This was clearly expressed in his regular contributions to the journal. Melita published in Susa (Sousse), a city in Tunisia, of which he was also a time editor.
Laurent’s literary achievements stand out clearly in his writing of poems. He published them in three volumes in 1950, 1953 and 1968 respectively. His first poems were published in 1932 in the book Anthology of neoclassical poets.
Laurent would write constantly on all subjects of Maltese interest in the French language. He even translated poems by Fr. Karm Psaila. Thus, for the first time, Maltese literary works attracted the attention of foreign scholars. In 1937 he published poems by many Maltese poets in Maltese poets. It was through Ropa’s efforts that Maltese literature began to gain deserved recognition in European literary circles. Indeed, referring to Maltese literature, the French review The Early Morning of April 10, 1937, published that the literature of the world was enriched with a new soul and a new language.
Laurent also excelled in writing letters to a number of giants of Maltese literature, including Father Psaila, Joseph Aquilina and Father Peter Paul Saydon. He managed to meet the latter two in the summer of 1938 at Chartres station in Paris. Ropa has developed a strong bond with Father Psaila. He even mentioned him as Malta’s national poet for the first time in his contribution. Literature Malta and its in November 1935 in the issue of La Grande Revue. Subsequently, Psaila’s title of National Poet began to gain traction among local Maltese academics and the general population at the time.
Laurent died on March 29, 1967 in Piacé at the age of 76. His surviving widow visited the Maltese Islands in 1970. She unveiled a commemorative marble wall plaque at Laurent’s home village of Xagħra on April 29, 1970, which was blessed by Fr Pio Rapa, Laurent’s younger brother. The ceremony took place in the presence of numerous personalities and members of the public. It was organized by the Gozo Civic Council and coordinated by Joe Attard Tabone.
In April 1975, an independent memorial in homage to Laurent Ropa was installed in the public gardens of Villa Rundle at the initiative of Paul Mizzi of the Klabb Kotba Maltin in Gozo, with the collaboration of the Maltese and French departments of the Royal University of Malta. His wife Marguerite died on January 5, 1992 in Tours, France at the age of 97. They still leave to mourn the grandchildren on their daughter’s side, the son having remained single.
The author thanks Joseph Camilleri of Victory Photo Studio, Xagħra, Carmela Curmi, Sylvie Darien, Marylene Pichon, Marie France Malhois, Dorothy Scerri, the University of Malta and the Gozo Public Library.
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