EXPLORERS DO NOT thrive in captivity, so it should have stung when Marco Polo was imprisoned in Genoa in 1298. The size of his internment trusted the course of the city-state’s battle along with his native Venice. However he didn’t waste it. “Moderately than idle away time he determined to place collectively this guide,” explains the prologue of “The Travels” (in Nigel Cliff’s translation). Written with Rustichello of Pisa, an creator and fellow inmate, it’s one among literature’s nice travelogues—a meandering voyage by the cultures and kingdoms of the Center East, China, South-East Asia, India and Russia.
A seasoned itinerant service provider, Polo lays out his materials with a flourish, whereas doggedly assuring readers of its authenticity. Real and faux, historical past and dream are woven collectively. Detailed figures—the tonnage of ships on the Yangzi, the fee charged for exchanging previous Chinese language banknotes, the going fee in India for Arabian horses—sit alongside flights of fancy. The approach lends credibility to the magic and lustre to the humdrum.
If Polo’s physique was imprisoned, his thoughts roamed free. A few of the innovations, similar to a levitating column in Samarkand, are apparent. However elsewhere what seems to be like fantasy is reality seen by the lens of novelty. A “unicorn” in Sumatra, as an example, is “a really ugly beast to take a look at” with a black horn and stumpy toes. Hardly anybody from Europe had seen a rhinoceros earlier than.
The intoxicating centrepiece is Polo’s sojourn in China, then ruled by Kublai Khan, founding father of the Yuan dynasty. His palace at Khanbaliq (modern-day Beijing) is topped with roofs of “scarlet and inexperienced and blue and yellow” that “shimmer like crystal” within the solar. Mile-long partitions enclose a park crammed with roe deer and white stags. The account of the Nice Khan’s summer time abode at Shangdu—constructed of bamboo canes tied with silk, and dismantled and moved on the Khan’s whim—impressed the “stately pleasure-dome” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Xanadu.
A lot of Polo’s contemporaries dismissed him as a fraud. Large man-eating serpents have been all very nicely, however what was this nonsense about paper cash? Some trendy lecturers nonetheless query whether or not he visited China in any respect. However his tales have been too tantalising to withstand. A well-thumbed copy of “The Travels” options within the library of Christopher Columbus. Kids supposedly chased Polo by the streets of Venice, beseeching him to inform them “one other lie”. On his deathbed, when requested for the umpteenth time to come clean with his fibs, he’s mentioned to have responded: “I’ve not informed half of what I noticed.”
As we speak his guide stays a feast, opening up locations that are actually inaccessible, or maybe by no means existed. If writing it was Polo’s approach of escaping his Genoese cage, for covid-era readers it’s a probability to swap quarantine for a mysterious world the place the wondrous turns into true. ■
This text appeared within the Books & arts part of the print version underneath the headline “Journey in confinement”
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