The Jukebox Queen of Malta
Jukebox Queen of Malta
Simon and Schuster/Bantam Press/Transworld Publishers, 1999
"a novel that upholds a literary tradition of the war...funny, melancholy, romantic, distrubing. Joseph Heller, William Styron, Norman Mailer... Rinaldi belongs in their company."
—THE NEW YORK TIMES, Richard Bernstein
"Just when you think there are no new genres, along comes the poet and novelist Nicholas Rinaldi with what might be called an incendiary-pastoral novel of life during the Axis bombardment of Malta."
—THE NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW, Tom Drury
"…a beguiling romantic story in an illuminating and surprising setting: an American soldier on the island of Malta in World War II." — JOSEPH HELLER, author of Catch 22
"I hope this year will offer us another novel as smart and hilarious, and magical as Nicholas Rinaldi's The Jukebox Queen of Malta, but I'm not holding my breath."
—RICHARD RUSSO, auithor of Straight Man and Nobody's Fool
"...a compelling tale of lovers straining to hear the music though the din of a war-ravaged planet."
"More readable than Michael Ondaatje's THE ENGLISH PATIENT, it is no less a skilled tour de force and equally prize-worthy."
—LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review)
"...well-constructed and quite likeable...and both the wry energy and bittersweet transience...are paralleled by several beguiling comic creations...."
"In Rinaldi's vision, the scene on Malta epitomizes the futility, irrevocability and brutal—as well as blackly humorous—ironies of war...a lace of philosophizing and rumination with a keen sense of place and history wefted in."
—THE BALTIMORE SUN, Victoria Brownworth
"Nicholas Rinaldi's digressive attention to the antics and idiosyncrasies of his numerous cast of characters saves them—by plunging them, and us, into a kind of ruthless absurdity—from despair."
—THE BOSTON GLOBE, Abby Frucht
"...evokes a sense of fatalism without falling back on the usual war-story triteness. And one is never so comfortable with Rocco and Melita's love affair as to decide beforehand that it is either doomed or triumphant because the novel's reality, the war, transcends those notions."
—BOOKLIST, Frank Caso
"Much to enjoy...Rinaldi has tremendous fun evoking the rich cultural pudding that was Malta in 1942, its weird combination of superstition, fatalism and grafted-on anglophilia, or ricotta and stiff upper lip."
—DAILY TELEGRAPH (UK), Patrick Gale
"...a resonant, thoughtful novel."
—THE TIMES METRO (UK), Elizabeth Buchan
"Under the heat and the hammering of bombs, Rinaldi paints the essence of the Second World War in exciting miniature."
—MAIL ON SUNDAY (UK), David Hughes
INTERVIEWS: WNYC (Leonard Lopate), WSHU, NPR
From the Publisher
It is 1942 and the island of Malta is under siege by a triumphant German air force. Out of the smoke and magnesium glare of bomb-blast steps Rocco Raven, native of Brooklyn, New York, apprentice radioman and expert car mechanic. His only contct is an American intelligence officer, Jack Fingerly, whose rank upgrades with their every meeting and whose purpose is known to no-one but himself. Far from finding a role for Rocco, Fingerly leaes him to face the chaos alone.
On only his third day there, his billet, on the top floor of a brothel, is blown to pieces. Without contacts or belongings, Rocco is left to wander the devastated streets of Valletta in a bewildered daze until he sees an apparition, a beautiful, ethereal woman. She is Melita, the Jukebox Queen of Malta, who spends her time delivering the jukeboxes wrought from old automobile and gramophone parts to the bars and restaurants which must entice the beleaguered civilian and military populations.
It is the beginning of an extraordinary relationship, at once passionate and guarded, which flourishes as the island's fortunes decline. Under the threat of starvation and in a world infused with the eccentricities of war, Rocco's seems to be the lone voice of sanity, until he too is infected by the madness around him and succumbs to the voluntary thrill of danger...
The Jukebox Queen of Malta is an extraordinary and compelling novel of love and war set on an island perilously balanced between what is real and what is not; magnificently evoking the physical and emotional extremes of a wrold at war.
In the annals of great literature, Malta's one potential claim to fame is that it might have been the location of Calypso's island in The Odyssey; apart from that, this tiny, windswept island midway between Italy and Libya makes itself scarce on the fictional front. But Nicholas Rinaldi brings it front and center in his remarkable second novel, The Jukebox Queen of Malta, and if his descriptions of the place leave you cold, his characters won't. Set during the early years of World War II, the story begins with the arrival of American soldier Rocco Raven, late of Brooklyn, during an air raid. While running from an attacking Messerschmitt, Raven is rescued by Jack Fingerly, a shadowy character who may--or may not--be an Army intelligence officer. To Rocco, a car mechanic in civilian life with a taste for Melville, Nietzsche, and Edgar Allan Poe, nothing about Malta makes sense--except his feelings for Melita Azzard, the eponymous heroine whom he meets during one of the incessant bombings that punctuate life on the island:
There was a freedom to the way she moved, a confidence and self-assurance. She paused to look up as yet another Stuka swept by, this one trailing a plume of black smoke from its fuselage. Then she looked back, over her shoulder, and saw him coming along half a block behind her.
Though the romance between Rocco and Melita is at the heart of the novel, Rinaldi has more than wartime love on his mind. His island is a marvelous place populated by unhappy pilots who get promoted every time they're shot down; repairmen who have turned jukeboxes into a wartime industry; old men who dream of a "Greater Malta" composed of an annexed Italy ("Sicily we don't want, it's too full of thugs and mafiosi. Rome we give to the pope, but the rest of Italy is ours"); and ordinary people who carry on their quotidian lives in the midst of not-so-quotidian carnage. There's a dreamy, disturbing quality to this novel, as though Catch-22 and Alice in Wonderland met and married. Rocco blames it on the island: "Malta was doing this--everything shifting, turning, uncertain"; the reader, however, knows better. This jewel of a novel owes everything to Nicholas Rinaldi's tilted imagination and considerable prose talents. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
In fluid prose and with subtle psychological insight, Rinaldi (Bridge Fall Down) writes of wartime love as a kind of complex anesthetic, or as a soul-saving form of amnesia during violent times. During the early years of WWII, U.S. Army Corporal Rocco Raven is sent to the small Mediterranean island of Malta on a vague intelligence mission concerning wire taps. Because of its key geographic position between Sicily and Africa, Malta has been subjected to daily Italian and German bombardments, and it seems that the only person keeping his head clear of falling rubble is Rocco's commanding officer, shifty Jack Fingerly, who dresses inappropriately in a Florida sports shirt and disappears when the going gets bad. Walking along pitted streets lined by gutted buildings, Rocco meets and immediately falls in love with Melita Azzard, a beautiful, green-eyed Maltese woman who drives a pink Studebaker hearse, delivering her cousin Zammits handmade jukeboxes to the many bars that cater to English and American troops. Rocco learns Maltese history from Nardu Camilleri, whose national pride drives him to vainly shoot at enemy planes with his outdated rifle. As the conflict accelerates, Rocco and Melita occasionally manage to escape, driving through Malta's rocky terrain and swimming naked in the ocean, and Rocco hopes for a future that sanctifies their love. Readers may find echoes of Louis De Bernieress Correllis Mandolin here, in the juxtaposition of local history, island romance and senseless violence, but Rinaldi's voice is distinct in its honest portrayal of a peoplelong deprived of food, information and entertainmentstruggling to reconnect to the world. While sometimes the plot momentum slows with long-winded dialogue, this is a compelling tale of lovers straining to hear the music through the din of a war-ravaged planet.
Rinaldi's second novel, a wartime love story set in Malta during the German-Italian siege of 1942, follows the serendipitous military life of Rocco Raven, an army radioman from Brooklyn, sent to Malta by mistake to work for the deep-secret branch of army intelligence. There he is under the command of the shady and mysterious Fingerly, whose underground connections run from Gibraltar to Cairo and who eventually has Rocco unknowingly spy on the British. The real tale is Rocco's relationships with the islanders, especially Melita, with whom he falls in love. Throughout the island, Melita repairs jukeboxes, made by her older cousin Zammit, who uses whatever material he can scavenge from the bombing raids. With the ever-increasing shortages and imminent death from the Italian and German bombers, the novel evokes a sense of fatalism without falling back on the usual war-story triteness. And one is never so comfortable with Rocco and Melita's love affair as to decide beforehand that it is either doomed or triumphant because the novel's reality, the war, transcends those notions. —Frank Caso