Random House by arrangement with Shambhala (1996)
151 pp., $16.95
ISBN: 0 09 183499 6
Review by Ann Skea
Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)
I must say from the start that this is an interesting book for those who enjoy philosophical puzzles and stories with mystical depths (which I do). But what a strange, thought-provoking, surprising and sometimes difficult story it tells, and how badly served the author is by the poor quality paper and clumsy footnote layout of this paperback edition.
The book is a mixture of history, philosophy, meditation and imagination which confuses fact and fiction, covers a vast landscape of spiritual ideas and yet is marketed as a novel. Indeed it is described on its front cover as "A novel for the dawning millenium" (Jill Ker Conway)-- whatever that may mean.
Yet, James Cowan suggests in his 'Introduction' and 'Note to the Reader' that this is an actual translation of the personal journal of a sixteenth century Venetian monk. Unsure whether to take this at face value or whether I was being subjected to one more post-modern trick, I rang the publisher. "It's an historical re-creation", I was told. I was also told that there had been some debate as to which category the book should be marketed in: 'Novel'(i.e. it is an imaginative re-creation) or 'New-Age'. To my mind it fits neither. 'New-Age', with its connotations of odd-ball psuedo-science and weird guru-dominated cults, is a dreadful term - totally wrong for this book, in which James Cowan or Fra Mauro (in the end it doesn't matter which) links Sufi-like, metaphorical tales which describe a spiritual journey.
Fra Mauro, "a consummate mapmaker", lived on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni in the Venetian Lagoon. His private journal records the visits of many travellers to his monk's cell, the stories they and various correspondents tell him about the world, and his own attempts to incorporate all this information into a mappa mundi which he is in the process of creating.
The stories are as varied as their tellers. A scholar speaks of feeling the spirit presence of a mummified Egyptian princess; a Franciscan monk tells of cartwheeling, one-eyed, one armed Cyclopedes and of men who could not bear the noise of the rising sun; there is the legend of Prester John; and the miracle of the saints tomb which exudes honey. Strange things, foreign religions, forgotten people and ideas, fact and fantasy, all fuel Fra Mauro's meditates on the nature of a world that can encompass them all. He contemplates his own situation, vicariously travelling the world from the confines of his cell and the perspective of his religious order, but open to every experience and working always on his map. This map may or may not exist, depending on the reader's desire for it to do so and on the level at which the reader interprets the story: or Fra Mauro's finished "Orbis Terra Compendiosa Descriptio" may be the meditations themselves.
Like Sufi literature, and alchemical texts, there are at least two levels to the text throughout. I find it hard to judge the reaction of a reader who sees only the surface story of a map making monk, his craft, his visitors, their stories and his reactions to them: I suspect it would be confusion. At the deeper level, Blake's aphorisms, fragments of Eliot's Four Quartets, and phrases from Buddhist and other teachings come constantly to mind. There are no conclusions: just the presentation of some of the many versions of Truth. At the end of his journal, Fra Mauro writes:
"My _mappa mundi_ lies on my desk, a piece of incandescence,
a visionary recital. There is no place for it to reside,
anywhere, except in the hearts of men...".
As in the tradition of all the great spiritual teachings, each explorer must create their own chart.
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