In the monastery of San Michele di Murano, a boat ride from Venice, a 16th century monk sits in his cell. By candlelight, he works on his map of the world, his "Orbis Terrae Compendiosa Descriptio." Gleaned from the stories of travelers and traders, missionaries and scholars, it is a map not only of coastlines and mountains but also of strange peoples and customs. Familiar rhumb lines and wind roses are juxtaposed against accounts of one-legged men, elixirs that grow wings and people who live underground because they cannot bear the noise of the sun rising. It is a map not only of physical boundaries. It is a map of the imagination.
This Renaissance monk and cartographer, Fra Mauro, admits that he is lazy. He is fearful. He remains safe in his small room overlooking the lagoon at San Michele while allowing his informants to live for him, to discover peoples and realms of which he can only dream.
Eventually, the monk decides that each of his reporters has revealed his own vision of the world. Knowledge might embody feelings as much as observation: "The world was thus a place entirely constructed from thought, ever changing, constantly renewing itself through the process of mankind's pondering its reality for themselves. . . ."
In this charming short novel, James Cowan, who lives in Balgo Hills, Australia, has created a set of mythical travel reports. Unlike Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" or Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," the narratives here are delivered by a succession of different travelers, occupying separate chapters. The result is a blend of different voices and mentalities eventually unified in the mind of the monk who, after each account, muses on its spiritual and philosophical import. Fra Mauro himself is slowly changed in the process.
There is a report from Malta of an icon called "Our Lady of Damascus." The lady in question has embedded in her forehead an actual oyster shell and the painting is believed to have been drawn from the sea by a fisherman.
A Franciscan monk named Johannes de Plano Carpini describes the mostly female population of Burithabeth, near the land of the Tartars. The men, exiled to the far side of the river, swim in the winter and then roll in the dust, which remains caked on their skin. The women won't have them, except possibly for brief couplings.
A Persian merchant relates crossing a remote region of Sheikhan when a sandstorm forced his caravan to take refuge in the castle of Ba-Idri, some distance from Al-Qosh. There, he met Satan worshipers known as the Yazidis. The emir takes him to a bower of giant mulberry trees, where he is astonished to see a shrine with a shiny black serpent carved into its walls. After reporting the journey, the merchant asks whether, if the Yazidis respect Our Lord equally with the devil while we despise the devil, does that not suggest that "we have built up a barrier between ourselves and the principle of darkness?" Have the Yazidis, unlike us, managed to embrace the entirety of human experience?
A Jesuit priest, recently returned from the Indies, tells how a Dutch sailor was shipwrecked in the wild, oriental Great South Land of Lochac and forced into cannibalism. The taste of his shipmates remained forever in his mouth. Upon his discovery that the Lochac natives wore no clothes and painted themselves with maps, the Dutchman began to view their bodies as visual pleasures, rather than as meals. "Whereas he had earlier taken to looking at the body as a source of food, he soon learned that its physicality was not its main attribute." The body was a source of knowledge.
In other chapters, there are reports of a map made in the shape of a heart and a whale's tooth transformed into a unicorn's horn. "What tumbles forth from the lips of wayfarers can be as fragrant as myrrh from a saint's bones on feast days," the monk says. Fragrant as they might be, Fra Mauro does not swallow all the stories whole. He gives himself license to speculate: "Map makers are entitled to do so, since they readily acknowledge that they are rarely in possession of all the facts."
Aside from some heavy-handed symbolic interpretations on the part of the monk, Cowan's writing is graceful and fresh. We are enchanted--we are wrapped in that magic and strangeness that comes of a journey far from our own time and place, yet told in a vernacular we know. (Other favorites of mine in the same vein are Jane Campion's film, "The Piano," and W.H. Hudson's memoir, "Far Away and Long Ago.")
Yet Cowan has also given us more than magical and strange travel stories. During the course of the novel, we see the monk's own process of self-discovery, despite his being chained to his writing table. Initially, the cartographer is pinioned by a fear of those things that do not conform to his sense of order. Initially, he is intent on creating a map of certainty. When all of the stories and reports have been gathered up and inscribed in the margins of the final map, he comes to the conclusion that "the true location of the world, of its countries, mountains, rivers and cities, happens to lie in the eye of the beholder." He, and we, create the world in our minds.