Friday, July 20, 2012

Tim Severin's "Tracking Marco Polo": Book Review

This spirited tale tells of the trio who left Oxford, as undergrads, to seek the path of Marco Polo in 1961. Tim Severin asserts that nobody had tried to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo, ever since that journey in the 1260s. Severin wrote this soon after his return from the frontiers of Afghanistan, and it appeared in 1964 originally.

After his fame with voyages in the paths of Brendan and Sindbad among others, he presumably accrued enough cachet to have this early account republished. It's brief, for the "Marco Polo Route Project" as they christened themselves and garnered sponsorships, took off with vigor but could only go halfway on the 10,000 miles that the Polos covered, as they could not obtain permission to enter China. With few supplies (if far too many as they found on a rough road), they set off blithely.

It moves rapidly, and there's not a lot of surprises. I enjoyed the book, but it's inevitably somewhat anticlimactic as the destination will be left unfulfilled. That's not to say it's dull for in the spirit of intrepid British adventurers, the trio manage to ride their BSA motorcycles (and sidecar) precariously across the Alps, Yugoslavia, and into Turkey. The highlights here are seeing the Tito regime's statue to the Unknown Partisan Fighter, rendered to them as "The Ignorant Peasant" and the hospitality shown them by their Istanbul host Arghun and his family. Severin's affection for that vast city is infectious, as is the wonderful, thrilling saga of their later visit to the legendary Valley of the Assassins.

Here, however, Severin breaks his foot. The rest of the tale moves in less dramatic if no less harrowing fashion. He sought to try to prove Marco Polo's claims to find, say, buckram, a hot springs of sulphur, a Persian hidden orchard, or "the apples of paradise" among other mentions in the "Travels." Severin argues that such sights were those in the chronicle, and that, logically, Polo took pains to include the more noteworthy places he saw, and to leave out the more mundane along the long way. Severin as expected intersperses snippets from Polo's report with the trio's own findings, in efficient fashion.

Severin closes by reviewing the impact of his own journey. Leaving the beaten track into the surprises, Severin notes how this venture took the trio into "fresh scenes and unlikely events." And, doing so helped the British students verify Polo. (A 5-7-12)

1 comment:

Louise Crawford said...

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