James Cowan's fantasy of a Venetian cartographer owes a large and obvious debt to Borges
, with its speculations on geography as a construct of the human consciousness, its erudite references, and its tales of explorations into an imaginary world. Through the purported journals of Fra Mauro, a cloistered monk who actually lived during the 15th century and who, in Cowan's novel, has resolved to create a map of the world without ever leaving his cell, we learn of a race of men with one foot the size of an umbrella, about the Vatican emissary to the Mongol court,and about the devil worshippers of the land called Mosul. Over the course of the book, Fra Mauro creates a world of his own, composed less of geographical knowledge than of meditation, folklore, and books.
From Publishers Weekly
This accomplished bit of armchair traveling from Australian novelist Cowan (Letters from a Wild State) takes the form of a 16th-century Venetian monk's journal. Fra Mauro, a cartographer, is working on a map of the world based on the oral reports of merchants, travelers and ambassadors who visit him in his cell. Oscillating between a dogmatic medieval mindset and a modern tolerance for?and interest in?diverse cultures and races, Fra Mauro hears stories about the far-flung world in the age of exploration. Among the wonders he hears about are a heretical sect of devil-worshipers, an Egyptian priestess's mummy, jungle people in Borneo whose religion is built around deciphering the calls of seven sacred birds, Christian missionaries in China and Genghis Khan's fabled capital of Karakorum. The travelers' impressions lead him to formulate conflicting, strikingly modern theories of cognition, politics and metaphysics: the world is pure thought, constantly changing as humanity's consciousness evolves; knowledge involves emotion as much as observation; the planet is a global community. The conception is reminiscent of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities?with a twist: Calvino made his traveler, Marco Polo, both tale-teller and interpreter, while his audience, Kublai Khan, was mute; Cowan gives full voice to his audience, Fra Mauro, making him, not the travelers, the interpreter of the world. Full of startling leaps of imagination and thought, this small gem of a book proves that the mind's desire can be as seaworthy a vessel as a schooner for exploring new worlds.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.