Sunday, July 22, 2012

Laurence Bergreen's "Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu": Book Review

This retells and comments upon the complicated tales told by "Marco Million" eight centuries ago. Bergreen, as an experienced biographer, navigates the tangled legacy of a hundred versions of the  manuscript, and explains in a useful closing section how the erratic tone and the meandering coverage of "The Travels" stems from the lack of a coherent edition. Ironically, the popularity of his tale led to so many copies and so many versions that the telling of its marvels, suppositions, and innuendos deepened its inherent exaggerations and knotted up the factual twists gleaned from twenty years spent by Marco and his father and uncle in Kublai Khan's vast Mongol empire.

Reading this, therefore, eases the encounter, for you get both generous excerpts from the original tale interspersed with Bergreen's summations, observations, and contexts. He often compares Marco's hearsay or eyewitness accounts to what we know about Mongol, Chinese, and other reports from contemporaries and early explorers. Marco worked, due to his facility for languages, for information gathering and tax collections in the Khan's realm, and Bergreen reminds us how the Polos were the inheritors both of the ruler's largesse and his prisoners, for the fate of the Venetian trio depended on the stability of the monarch, which could be unpredictable.

The impact of "The Travels" lies in its position of its teller as insider able to view the Mongols as an adopted resident and yet, as a Catholic Italian, irremediably as an outsider who will never fit in despite the flexible nature of the Mongols towards employing foreigners as one way to involve others in the administration of the realm by both its conquering overseers and its complicit co-operators. One slight drawback may lie more in the source material than Bergreen's retelling: unlike Tim Severin's incomplete (halfway to the Chinese border) 1961 motorcycle tour along the route of the Polos published as "Tracking Marco Polo" or Belliveau and O'Donnell's "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo" about their '94-'95 journey all the way to China, Bergreen does not despite his visits to the original lands convey an impression of, say, how the Pamirs feel so desolate or how Cathay compares now to then. The map of Marco's conjectured travels into East Asia and India is far too miniscule to do its scope justice. While one welcomes the color inserts mostly of medieval depictions of scenes, one  wishes for the handsome endpaper maps of historical books much more common not too long ago.

Also, while Bergreen tells us where in the chronicle Marco begins to mature and separate his sensibility from his editor-collaborator Rustichello da Pisa, or that Marco started to accept Buddhist precepts despite his Christian suspicion of idols and rebirths, such assertions do not find much support in the texts he cites or sums up. Lots of this book is a combination of large portions of Marco's reports, collated with Bergreen's observations. As expected, but for some stretches, it's unadorned and the tone is more dutiful than enticing; that being said, hints of wit regarding Marco's eye for the salacious and astonishing enliven our time as they have many eras before now. Bergreen's chapter notes at the end of the text and his in-depth bibliography show he has done his research, but his assertions about the multicultural model pioneered by Marco do not appear to be as clearly conveyed as Bergreen would want them to be here.

I found therefore that this study fulfilled my expectations regarding a sustained commentary on Marco's adventures, but its value lies more in the contexts Bergreen provides gleaned more from other studies in other books than his first-person reports, which are barely evident for most of the saga. His strength lies in the straightforward recital of Polo's tale juxtaposed with what scholars and adventurers have since found verifies or challenges the supposedly tall tales or true ones Marco told. (Amazon US 5-28-12)

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