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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

“Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu”, by Laurence Bergreen

432 pages, Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-1400078806

Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen relates the tale of Marco Polo (1254-1324) and his journey from the West to the Mongol-dominated East via the Silk Road, that treacherous journey that connected the two continents for centuries. Contrary to popular belief, Polo was not the first European to make it to China; he was, however, the first to bring back news knowledge of the mysterious East to a wider European public through the medium of his book, Travels, first published (we think) around 1298. As per usual with Polo, things are not this straightforward, for the Travels is not a single account, but rather a series of about, oh, 119-or-so surviving manuscripts, each one different and none authoritative. Scholars have tried to patch the various versions together over the centuries, but in the age before the printing press Marco kept handing out new hand-written copies with additions and subtractions, and others would make more copies adding their own embellishments or mistakes: the chronology would change, the ordering of events would shift (as if the pages were dropped on the floor and re-assembled incorrectly), the specifics of events would differ, the places and people would alter, etc…thus, there is no “correct” or “final” version of the Travels. Bergreen bases his account on the longest version available and usually does not question its accuracy, often pointing out why it must be so (except for a few well known problems).

The Great Question that has haunted the Travels since it first appeared is its veracity; children are said to have followed Marco Polo chanting, “Messer Marco, tell us another lie!” Until the 19th Century it was mostly seen as comparable to The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a travel memoir by the same which first circulated between 1357 and 1371 and which is rightly seen as a work of fantasy. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when scholars were able to verify, through Chinese records, many of the details, and with the recognition of the importance of the Age of Discovery and global trade and travel in World History, Marco Polo has become today one of the most well known figures of the Middle Ages. Yet there still remain a few critics who question if Marco Polo actually ever went, and this myth of the “faked Travels” hangs over it. But as Bergreen says in the Epilogue, it would have been a more amazing feat to amass so much accurate information about Asia without actually going there than to have made the trip and write about it (Thank You, Occam). Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, I find, is a lot like a basic meatloaf-and-potatoes dinner: sure it nourishes, but it doesn’t delight. Bergreen doesn’t create a convincingly strong central narrative to the book: he shows Marco Polo develop from a naive youth, to a curious sensualist, into a spiritual awakened middle aged man, and then finally into a petty and aged ex-opium addict (perhaps); we learn very little about Marco Polo the man. All is conjecture when faced with Marco’s externally orientated Travels: the portrait is believable, but the sources are weak.

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