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While reading Mediterranean Crossings, I was wistfully reminded of two invaluable books: Predrag Matvejević's Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape—marked by his meticulous local knowledge, elegant multilingualism, and sincere dedication to the intercontinental histories of Mediterranean languages, literatures, and cultures, as well as by his genuine passion for seas, ships, maps, and islands—and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own—an astute contribution to the history of writing, which is particularly perceptive when her reflections on "anger snatch[ing the] pencil" enter the discussion of writing against oppression.1 Why laud the specificities of two books while reviewing a third? Because anger was tampering with the integrity of Iain Chambers the critic as "anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist," as Woolf ascertains.2 Had Chambers's study of the "forgotten voice" and "ignored body" (Chambers 26) happened as an actual practice of what he preaches, then his symptomatically resentful voice would likely have recognized its own partiality when expending such energy on clichés as the "scholastic image of the Mediterranean as the source of European culture: a Greek poet plucks the strings of his lyre on the shores of the Aegean Sea and chants the first lines of the Iliad" (40).
Launching the idea of a "mutable Mediterranean" in his acknowledgments, Chambers chooses Alberto Masala's "nel mio mediterraneo non ci sono vincitori" (ix) as a promising motto that introduces the Mediterranean as a diverse region characterized by Arab, Jewish, Turkish, and Latin cultures. But when he reminds us toward the end of his book that his goal was not "to overturn prevalent views and a Northern framing of the South" but rather "to follow signs, suggestions, sounds, smells, and silences that propose a complex, open-ended narration of historical time and its cultural composition" (131), one gets a distinct impression that Chambers's mission has [End Page 565] remained unaccomplished. One typical discrepancy between intention and result appears in his two emphatic introductions of Jacques Derrida. Rather than incorporating the philosopher's thought in a detailed fashion, Chambers contents himself with showcasing Derrida the man—first as a "brilliant Jewish Algerian philosopher from the African shore of the Mediterranean" (10) and then "less as a member of the Parisian intellectual coterie than as a Mediterranean thinker, a philosopher from the Maghreb, a French-speaking Jew from colonial Algeria, . . . from the margins of the European logos" (133). It is worth recalling that such biographical sketching frames a book that ambitiously defines its object of study "not so much as a frontier or barrier between the North and the South, or the East and the West, as an intricate site of encounters and currents" (32), celebrating "the simultaneous sense of division . . . and connection (51-52). Incidentally, this sense repeatedly appears in critical Mediterranean studies preceding Chambers's, for instance in Matvejević's book, which qualifies the Mediterranean as "a place for overcoming oppositions" and in Micheline Galley and Leïla Ladmimi Sebai's L'homme Méditerranéen et la mer, where Claude-Hélène Lacroix argues that the Mediterranean is not only a geographic divide but also an invitation to create.3
Casually informed by Giorgio Agamben, Homi Bhabha, Maurice Blanchot, Fernand Braudel, Franco Cassano, Gilles Deleuze, Derrida, Paul Gilroy, Antonio Gramsci, Félix Guattari, Julia Kristeva, Matvejević, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Hayden White (among others), Chambers, in five chapters, fashions "critical thought as a border discourse" (5). His quoting a Neapolitan chef's "combin[ing] and mix[ing of] the ingredients" (1) serves as a savory prelude to the cultural mutability he sets out to investigate, while the book's first chapter refers to Matvejević's idea of Mediterranean polyphony. Focusing on multiethnicity, cultural diversity, and how they challenge literary topoi such as Arcadia or Utopia, this chapter propagates a Pasolinian "atrocity of doubt" (21) while curiously pegging Israel as the "most border-conscious nation in the world" (6).
In chapter 2, Chambers...