Books I’ve Read: The Travels (Marco Polo)

Let us begin in a prison in Genoa, in the year of Our Lord 1298.

A cell door clangs open, and Rustichello da Pisa is thrust inside. Were he born six hundred years later, we would describe him as a failed novelist – at this point in time, he is simply a failed writer of romances, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and confined as a prisoner of war. As his eyes become accustomed to the dim light, Rustichello realises he is not alone – there is another man in this cell, a wild eyed man of forty four but who possess the manic energy of a younger man. Or a madman.

He won’t stop talking as he paces the cell, speaking of Mongol warriors who drink the blood of their horses even as they ride them, Eastern witchdoctors who can kill a man with an ill thought and levitate a room full of wine cups from the ground for the amusement of great kings, unicorns that crush men with their knees and lacerate them with barbed tongues. At first Rustichello thinks he too will go mad from this endless chatter, and imagines beating or choking the life out of the ridiculous fabulist who won’t give him a moment’s peace. But as he listens closer, he gradually realises that, poor writer that he is, he is being given the opportunity for greatness…or at least the bestseller he needs to pay off his more troublesome creditors. He grabs the other man and sets him down, looking at him with utter seriousness.

“What’s your name?”

The wild eyed man stops jabbering for a moment and looks at him with eyes of a most brilliant, intense blue.

“Marco Polo.”

“Marco Polo. Good name.” Rustichello leans in even closer. “You and me, we’re going to make a bloody fortune, Marco.”

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My story is a lie. Who knows what truly went on in the first meeting between Marco Polo and Rustichello de Pisa, or what their respective characters were like. Perhaps Rustichello was the wild fantasist, and Marco a laconic, cynical traveller who simply fuelled the other man’s creativity. Perhaps they didn’t even meet in prison as tradition has it, and that story was a final embellishment to a book of embellishments.

But however they met, between Marco’s mixture of personal travel experience (allegedly as an envoy to Kublai Khan, probably as an occasional merchant visitor to the East, perhaps entirely fictional) and hearsay from other travellers on the road, and Rustichello’s exaggerations and outright fabrications, they produced the work we know as the Travels of Marco Polo. It was an instant success, a 13th century bestseller, and it has become one of the classics of travel writing.

It is a delicious, exhilarating read…in places. It has shades of Herodotus (another traveller of antiquity who couldn’t resist a good story), as Marco and Rustichello take you on an thrilling journey into their semi-fictional vision of the Orient, stopping off at remote villages and great cities, visiting the courts of great kings and the homes of humble tradesmen along the way.

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Parts of it sound almost like a 13th century Lonely Planet – we are told that a particular part of Mongolia, where women are given honour depending on the number of women they have slept with and thus compete for the sexual affections of passing travellers, is “understandably, a very good place for young men aged between 16 and 24.” It tells you how to cross particular deserts where you “must not drink the brackish water” that drives men mad. It is when the book places you on the ground, travelling over deserts and high mountain passes, eyes boggling at the sumptuous luxury of the Great Khan’s court that it is at its strongest.

When Marco runs out of stories (or rather, when Rustichello couldn’t be bothered to make anything interesting up,) the details go thin. There are rather too many Chinese provinces that are summarised as being “filled with idolators, subject to the Great Khan and who use paper money,’ and the book as a whole lacks any kind of overall structure or deliberate point – it trails to an unsatisfactory end, with only a hurried epilogue that vainly tries to tie the whole thing together. It is a patchwork of anecdotes, nothing more, nothing less.

The Travels is a work of fictional anthropology, a record not of the actual 13th century Orient but of Western perceptions of the Orient – this sprawling, mythical continent of uncountable riches, beautiful women, ancient civilisations and barbaric, endlessly warring Tartar clans. In present day works of history and travel writing we feign objectivity and accuracy, but almost invaribaly craft facts into stories, a succession of scarely connected events into a kind of overarching narrative. It is how we  make sense of strange places and distant events – Marco and Rustichello were simply more honest than most in how large a part storytelling has to play in the process. All history is storytelling, just as the telling of ancient history turns it, inevitably, into myth.

Book-In-Laws: The Histories (Herodotus), A Thousand and One Nights (Various), Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

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