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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

A MAPMAKER'S DREAMS The Meditations of Fra Mauro Cartographer to the Court of Venice By James Cowan; Shambhala: 151 pp., $18

December 29, 1996|ALAN LIGHTMAN

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.

In this charming short novel, James Cowan 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.

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.

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