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Book Review : One Writer's Modern Odyssey : MEDITERRANEAN, A Cultural Landscape; by Predrag Matvejevic, Translated from the Croatian : by Michael Henry Heim, University of California Press, $29.95, 218 pages

September 02, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are writers who study a subject and then turn out well-made, cogent, accessible books. There are other writers who see a subject as a mule waiting to be harnessed to a theory. Finally, there is the writer who has so thoroughly digested a subject that its odor leaks from his pores and perfumes his most random thoughts. The reader may not glean information for a term paper nor gather arguments for a dinner table from this writer, but, at night perhaps, may dream that fragrance and experience, the writer's passion and transcendence, if only for a sleeping moment.

Such a writer is Predrag Matvejevic, born in Bosnia, educated in Croatia, professor in Paris and Rome, student of the world. His 1991 "Mediterranean," (recently translated from the Croatian by that honey-tongued gift to Central Europe, Michael Henry Heim) is a free-floating inquiry into the nature of the Mediterranean, touching on subjects ranging from salt to sails, olives to the Bible, crickets to sponges that "have been known from time immemorial: the oldest frescoes discovered on Crete--they look like stage sets--show sponges. . . . Because they [the sponges] are also used for erasing blackboards, they are thought of as an aid to forgetting." In the course of his inquiry, Matvejevic travels by land and by sea, not just along the European coast of the Mediterranean, but in the Levant and along the African coast, with its deserts and hidden rivers. Although he picks an arbitrary starting point close to his own geographical heart--the Adriatic Sea and the Dalmatian coast--Matvejevic declares, "All sea voyages have several beginnings and several ends; they are never complete (especially when a book or ship's log prolongs them)." With this statement, Matvejevic takes his place at the mast with Herman Melville and John Barth, Salman Rushdie and the great Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis, whose sailor-hero Maqroll could have written long sections of "Mediterranean."

For Matvejevic, "the Mediterranean is not merely geography," nor is it merely things we can touch with the senses. Although he dwells most lovingly on the travelers of old and the map makers of the early Renaissance, the Mediterranean has obvious import to the author's own ever-volatile Balkans. The Croatians, who own the longest stretch of coast, boasted a navy in the 10th century so large that it "attracted the attention of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.". The Bosnian Muslims have "formed an island within the Balkans," as have the landlocked Montenegrins, who look eastward to the Aegean when they think of the sea. And as for the Serbs, they "seem to make their way to the warm sea when they are at their most powerful or most beleaguered. . . . Serbia is a fortress destroyed and rebuilt many times over, always relying on the continent, hoping the Danube will replace the sea."

Neither a book of stories nor an almanac of facts, "Mediterranean" is a far rarer distillation. Matvejevic is the quiet listener on Marlowe's boat, the traveler who disembarks in La Spezia or Buenos Aires to drink prosecco with Calvino or mate with Borges and pour details of imaginary cities and crumbled genizahs into their thirsty ears. Who can doubt that "Mediterranean" belongs in the posthumous library of Borges, not to mention the working archives of NATO?

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