A Mapmaker's Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice

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Overview

In sixteenth-century Venice, in an island monastery, a cloistered monk experiences the adventure of a lifetime?all within the confines of his cell. Part historical fiction, part philosophical mystery, A Mapmaker's Dream tells the story of Fra Mauro and his struggle to realize his life's work: to make a perfect map?one that represents the full breadth of Creation. News of Mauro's projects attracts explorers, pilgrims, travelers, and merchants, all eager to contribute their accounts of faraway people and places. As...
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Overview

In sixteenth-century Venice, in an island monastery, a cloistered monk experiences the adventure of a lifetime—all within the confines of his cell. Part historical fiction, part philosophical mystery, A Mapmaker's Dream tells the story of Fra Mauro and his struggle to realize his life's work: to make a perfect map—one that represents the full breadth of Creation. News of Mauro's projects attracts explorers, pilgrims, travelers, and merchants, all eager to contribute their accounts of faraway people and places. As he listens to the tales of the strange and fantastic things they've seen, Mauro comes to regard the world as much more than continents and kingdoms: that it is also made up of a vast and equally real interior landscape of beliefs, aspirations, and dreams. Mauro's map grows and takes shape, becoming both more complete and incomprehensible. In the process, the boundaries of Mauro's world are pushed to the extreme, raising questions about the relationship between representation, imagination, and the nature of reality itself.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Beautifully written."—New York Times

"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."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"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."—Publishers Weekly

"Marvelous not only at capturing time and place but also at recapturing the mentality of its milieu."—Booklist

"This lovely meditation will enchant many readers."—Library Journal

"Cowan’s short novel is a thoughtful work, gently prodding the reader’s mind to think in new directions."—The Examiner

"A genuinely entertaining book. Cowan successfully conveys the spirit of a time when the physical world was still infused with the ethereal."—The Observer

"I must say A Mapmaker's Dream threw me into a speechless whirl. This is a book that cannot be read without red wine; one of those rare works that requires underlining. It's quite extraordinary when a book successfully questions the shape of the world."—Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall

"To read this multilayered journey around the world and across time is to fall headlong into the emotional tumult of an antique map. James Cowan tells the farthest-flung adventure story through the eyes of a monk who never leaves his own cell. And every exotic word works."—Dava Sobel, author of Longitude

"A resonant work of historical fiction. . . . A marvelously romantic catalogue of antique ports and cities and continents. James Cowan ingeniously recreates Fra Mauro’s life work. His book carries us into the mind of a genius."—Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered, National Public Radio

"An unquestionably brilliant contemplation of maps, both esoteric and exoteric, that propels the literary traveler into a series of philosophical and meditative twists and turns that never fail to astonish and provoke."—Rudolph Wurlitzer, author of Hard Travel to Sacred Places

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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 forand interest indiverse 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 Citieswith 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. (Oct.)
Library Journal
In Cowan's luminescent little tale, a 16th-century Venetian monk named Fra Mauro slaves to create a map of the worlda map that will sum up humankind's broadest knowledge and experience. He is perfectly situated, for Venice, a merchant city at the crossroads, "has the world in the palm of its hand." Fra Mauro absorbs all he hearsthe story of an oyster shell embedded in an icon, tales from Persia and the land of the Tartarsand attempts to incoporate it into his map. He also has a shocking encounter with the cartography of a Tunisian slave whose world view is very different from his own. Each tale falls like a tiny gem in the reader's lap, and the atmosphere is at once dreamy and sharply detailed, throwing in relief another world and another time. In the end, Fra Mauro has "no way of knowing whether I was reflecting earth's existence or my own," leaving us to consider the nature of knowledge, self, and the world. Not much happens, and the actual creation of the map is somewhat anticlimatic, but this lovely meditation will enchant many readers.Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
The subject of Cowan's (Messengers of the Gods, 1993, etc.) first novel—the thoughts of an intellectually adventurous Renaissance cartographer—should make it soar, but instead it remains painfully inert.

Fra Mauro is a Venetian monk who never leaves his cell yet wants to create the greatest map of the world. Is this folly, or is he as well equipped as anyone—since mightn't "the world [be...] a place entirely constructed from thought"? Mauro tests his hypothesis by receiving men who have traveled widely and come to him with their tales—a merchant who has seen the Orient, another who has been among the Mongols, others with tales of one-eyed and one-armed humans, or one-legged people, or collectors of heads and eaters of their own flesh. That the mind may create the world as much as vice versa is an idea equally at home in the Renaissance world of Hamlet and in the age of Picasso—but Cowan's tale brings it forward on feet of lead and too often with prose to match ("The more I translated his words, the more I began to believe that neither of us had a hegemony over truth"). Fra Mauro's visitors, and the good monk himself, remain underdetailed and dimensionless as an essay-like tone presides over dramatic near-inertia ("It dawned on me then that the world had to be considered as an elaborate artifice . . ."). "What these men bring to me . . . is a feeling of awe," Mauro says at one point, making the reader only regret being unable to feel the same. Near books's end, as Mauro actually sits down to draw his map, Cowan produces a handful of pages as brightly filled with a wealth of life as Homer's description of Achilles' shield—but these are a small number among the gray many.

A potential feast for thought, but in a novelistic equivalent of talking heads.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590305201
  • Publisher: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/18/2007
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.25 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

James Cowan is the author of more than twenty books, including Francis: A Saint's Way and the best-selling A Mapmaker's Dream, for which he was awarded the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal. He lives in Queensland, Australia.
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