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Boston Globe: "A tale of the three men's lives and loves...Izzo's novel is something of a palimpsest. The travels of the Romans, and of the Greeks before them, have left their traces over which the lives of his characters are now etched."

Date: Dec 2 2007

Latitudes and attitudes

The word "map," I discover to my satisfaction, has its root in the Latin for tablecloth or napkin. This conjures up for me scenes of ancient postprandial enthusiasm: of bones, walnut shells, and the salt cellar being marshaled about the table to represent features of the known world and of the exotic regions beyond. I like to think of the heroic extrapolations from past exploration that occurred over such displays through the ages…

In a geographical sense, maps have become increasingly accurate, culminating in those based in space photography. But, of course, maps have also become poorer for having lost the spiritual, allegorical, and mythical dimensions they had when the earth was less real than time, the arena in which the great narratives of salvation were being played out. To be sure, even beyond limiting what may be said to be real, accuracy itself still has a large element of presumption. Maps are, and always have been, ways of asserting power and even seizing it. They are a means of defining who exists and who doesn't. Indeed, maps serve so many purposes that their history cannot be summed up; they offer glimpses into other realities that go beyond words…

And, indeed, that particular map has reached through time into Jean-Claude Izzo's The Lost Sailors (translated, from the French, by Howard Curtis; Europa Editions, paperback, $14.95). Izzo, best known for the procedurals that make up the "Marseilles Trilogy," was, until his death in 2000, intent on capturing the life of his native Marseilles and preserving it in writing. In this novel, we discover its melancholy Greek hero, Diamantis, poring over "the Peutingeriana" (a modern copy, presumably, as the original medieval copy is in the Austrian National Library, in Vienna). "In ancient times maps were called 'the periods of the earth,' " Diamantis explains. "Between this map and the ones we use for navigation, the earth has really changed a lot. Ports have changed their names, and so have the seas that wash them. Some have disappeared completely. If their story isn't written now it never will be."

Diamantis is one of the last three sailors to remain on the Aldebaran, a freighter that has been stranded on a remote berth in the city's port, unable to leave until the owner's debts have been discharged. What ensues is a tale of the three men's lives and loves, the former shaped and the latter doomed by maritime absence. In fact, Izzo's novel is something of a palimpsest. The travels of the Romans, and of the Greeks before them, have left their traces over which the lives of his characters are now etched. Though the stories unfold in today's world and against a backdrop of one of the world's great port cities - now in decline and festering with crime and racial tension - they nonetheless resonate with the Mediterranean's Homeric narrative.

By Katherine A. Powers

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