Wednesday, 2 September 2009

MCV: An Island Disguised - Andrew Shaw reviews a new book about Malta’s hidden history

http://mcv.e-p.net.au/features/an-island-disguised-6096.html
1.9.9 by Andrew Shaw

Joseph Chetcuti is no stranger to gay activism. Having written the first book in the Maltese language about homosexuality (The Pink Book) this Melbourne-based solicitor of Maltese descent has now produced a fascinating history of Malta’s gay underground past and its current struggles for equality.

Queer Mediterranean Memories is a serious history, a collection of stories, a springboard for speculation about the sexuality of some major historical figures and a guide to Maltese camp culture.

Along the way, Chetcuti challenges some pretty important people: Saint Paul – the disciple, and architect of Christianity as we know it – is one of Malta’s patron saints. Chetcuti suspects, with others, that Paul may have been gay and misogynous, explaining the absence of women in church roles.

Saint Paul is one person in a fascinating chapter on the queer historical figures who have passed through Malta: Caravaggio, Lord Byron, lords Louis Mountbatten and Baden-Powell. Chetcuti also suspects Malta’s first saint, St George Preca, canonised 2007, was homosexual. (A bronze statue of Preca graces the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.) Although his evidence will fail to convince some – the sound of Preca’s voice, for example – Chetcuti draws on letters and first-hand accounts of people who knew Preca to build his case. It makes for compelling reading whether you reach the same conclusion as Chetcuti or not; and the reader is reminded that the sub-title of Queer Mediterranean Memories is “Penetrating the secret history and silence of gay and lesbian disguise in the Maltese archipelago”. To find the identity of the person behind a mask, Chetcuti is suggesting, you must speculate.

Given some of the controversial suggestions in Queer Mediterranean Memories, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the author devotes space to a discussion of the laws of defamation! As you might expect from an author with an insider’s perspective on the law, the book begins with a detailed look Malta’s laws regarding homosexuals. Chetcuti points out that since Malta’s entry into the European Union (2004) some of its laws may run counter to international covenants.

There are marvellous images in this book – a criticism is that they could have been presented more prominently. They include photos of the clubs, the bars, the drags and sailors who frequented them, as well as key figures in recent gay history. There’s even a chapter on Maltese gay speech (might come handy), one on Maltese homosexual literature and a look ahead to the future of GLBTIQs in Maltese society.

Queer Mediterranean Memories is a labour of love, its author not only an engaging story-teller, but a historian of painstaking detail. He weaves together saints, priests, drag queens and sailors in a celebration of this tiny, sun-kissed archipelago that has played a major role in western history. As historian Dr Graham Willett says in his introduction, “this is a book of passion and scholarship”.

Queer Mediterranean Memories is available at Hares & Hyenas, 63 Johnston St, Fitzroy, or online queermalta.com. Rrp $65.

Pictured (Top) Sailors enjoy the Maltese sun. and (below) Author Joseph Carmel Chetcuti.

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