Navigatio by Patrick Holland
At one point in Navigatio our heroic monk, Brendan of Clonfert, takes a slim volume from the shelf of an old soldier’s home and says, ‘That book was about a monk who set sail for a place that was beyond maps and which he could not properly name. It was difficult to follow the story.’ It, too, is called Navigatio. It’s a wink of irony and witchery in this strange, beautiful book that bends time, soars through dreams and traverses that space between life and death – heaven and hell.
Saint Brendan of Clonfert was an early Irish saint who set sail for Paradise around 500AD and is reputed to have found the mythical island somewhere west of Ireland in the Atlantic. Many feats have been attributed to Brendan, but it’s for this seven-year voyage that he is most famed. Knowing this will give you more satisfaction reading Navigatio. It’s not easy to follow, sometimes the vignettes consist of just a few words interspersed with illustrations by Junko Azukawa, but this only adds to the magic. These watercolours lift the story of Brendan and his travelling monks into fable, and bring with it tales of temptress maidens, sea monsters and exiled men not of the hermitic type. This is Patrick Holland’s turf.
Holland, an esteemed travel writer along the lines of Chatwin, has given us a work that explores home, exile and transience through the journey of a sixth-century monk. Navigating through oceans of Celtic and Christian mythology, we never discover if this purgatory is real or imagined until there’s a flash of the metafictive, with a man stranded in contemporary transit. It’s a typical stroke in an ambitious and surprising book from one of Australia’s most exciting writers.
Luke May is a freelance reviewer.