The Traveler's Tale

Reviewed by Colin Thubron
Sunday, November 4, 2007


From Venice to Xanadu

By Laurence Bergreen

Knopf. 415 pp. $28.95

Of all the travelogues ever published, none is more ambitious, controversial and erratic than Marco Polo's Description of the World. During the century after it was written, it appeared in some 120 manuscripts, none of them identical. It is riddled with legends and half-truths. Its chronology is haphazard, its personal history unsubstantiated. It is full of wonders later revealed to be true and others that remain absurd. Even now, it is probably incomplete. In Polo's lifetime, children are said to have followed him through the alleys of Venice chanting, "Messer Marco, tell us another lie!"

In Marco Polo, Laurence Bergreen gives a full-blooded rendition of Polo's astonishing journey. It is richly researched and vividly conveyed. He has, by his own account, tinkered a little with chronology and has adopted -- and seems to believe -- the longest and most personal of the many narrative versions.

Polo's journey rings with the wonder of a suddenly revealed East. The callow young Venetian, who left Europe with his father and uncle in 1271, crossed the breadth of Asia to arrive at the astonishing court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of a newly conquered China. For 17 years, he served there as a special emissary. His portrait of Kublai Khan's world is at once reverential and intimate. He evokes not only the palaces of marble and cane in Cambulac, later known as Beijing, and the routine luxury and etiquette of court life, but also the emperor's fiscal policy and use of paper money, his pantheistic faith (he contemplated including Jesus), his wardrobe, his mail service, his feasts, his harem. Polo devotes valuable pages to Mongol history, the failed invasion of Japan and the superb Sung dynasty capital of Hangzhou, redolent of an older China. In accounts of the remoter regions of the empire, even of Africa, Polo's record grows fantastical: Tibetan astrologers conjure tempests and thunderbolts, the "grifon bird" carries off elephants and drops them to be smashed on the ground before consuming them.

Almost inevitably, Bergreen's book is less a true biography than a sumptuous retelling of this great narrative, bulked out with the fruits of much research and some overblown speculation. The author's efforts to trace a formal development in the narrative -- a spiritual or erotic journey -- are heavily strained. Of Polo's encounter with Buddhism, Bergreen writes, "All the glorious battles and alluring concubines on which he had lavished attention fade in significance before the spiritual journey unfolding before him and his newest, and greatest, discovery: himself." But this is a modern preoccupation.

The truth is that we know almost nothing of Polo's inner feelings. His prose is generally sparse and terse. He was bent on giving information about the world. What may be inferred about him from his Description is neither complex nor flattering. He was sharply observant but naive and grossly egotistical. ("This noble youth," he writes of himself, "seemed to have divine rather than human understanding.") But his account was dictated in a Genoese jail to a fellow prisoner and hack romancer named Rustichello, and some of its embellishments may not be his own.

At least one noted Sinologist has shed serious doubt on whether Marco Polo went to China at all. "For seventeen years, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan participated in a most unusual partnership as master and servant, teacher and disciple, and even father and son," writes Bergreen. Yet there is no record in the Chinese annals of any such person existing, let alone of his presence at the siege of a Chinese city whose capture he claims to have effected.

Here Polo has become the victim of his own self-aggrandizement. He laid boastful claim, it seems, to roles he never enjoyed. But for all its bombast and occasional lies, the detailed intelligence of his Description of the World has persuaded most scholars of its essential truth: a masterpiece to which Bergreen's book bears opulent and enthusiastic witness. ¿

Colin Thubron is a travel writer and novelist whose latest work is "Shadow of the Silk Road."

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