Archive for July 22nd, 2010

Marco Polo – The Travels

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Few people these days will not have heard of Marco Polo, the mediaeval merchants who travelled to the hardly known court of Kubilai Khan, at the time supreme lord of the greatest empire in the world: the Mongol Empire, an took back to Europe amazing tales of what he saw there.

Few people these days however, will have actually read his account of those travels. So famed, yet so unknown. For me a reason to buy the book and find out the truth behind his fame.

Marco Polo was barely an adult when he joined his father and uncle who had returned from a first visit to Kubilai Khan when they were soon sent for a second mission. This was the year 1271. It would take 24 years before Marco Polo would finally return home to Europe. It was clearly no brief visit. As merchants and foreigners they were highly esteemed by Kubilai Khan, who was apparently interested in any topic. It actually took some bit of convincing until they were finally allowed to return to Europe.

The story of The Travels is medium-sized. Not short but also not overly large. It is divided into different parts, each describing a number of related topics. First it starts with the journey to the court of Kubilai Khan, from the Levant through Central Asia, entering China from the west (also known as the Silk Route) to Beijing. Then follow tales of the greatness of Kubilai Khan and his immense power and wealth, before two travels are told which Marco Polo undertook as an emissary for Kubilai Khan to the southwest and southeast of his empire. The final parts detail the travels back to Europe, which went via South-Asia and India. There is an extra part relating to several wars among the Mongols, but there does not seem a special reason why this was added.  Overall Marco Polo saw a huge part of the hardly known Asia. Being an emissary of Kubilai Khan he was received respectfully in many places, even as he was a strange foreigner.

So this is the setup: stories from travels through all of Asia. This should allow for some interesting tales. Alas, it is not so much the case. The stories are mostly about travels. Marco Polo is a merchant. For him the things which are interesting are the things people produce and trade in and which customs they have. So the stories tell about trade and wealth, the production of food, be it game, drinks and gains from the lands and the local industries, usually gems, gold or silver, silk and furs. The customs relate to the beliefs, the political structure and odd habits. In numerous cases he breaks this list with some tale of wars or history, which authentity leaves a bit to question. In most cases Marco Polo did not know the languages so that he had to rely on his interpreter. One can guess how accurate much of this would have been. Even in the case of religion he often does not seem to have a good idea and in only some tales we recognize familiar things.

So as Marco Polo travels from city to city, declaring their distance and direction, from country to country, there is often a long repetition of very similar things. Especially in China, which was heavily populated, most things were very uniform. In most cases it’s all the same. The fact that in between he tells about other events and sights, prevent the reader from getting bored.

What I hoped to read about was what Marco Polo did during his stay of 24 years. The book however is very impersonal. Little is said about what Marco or his father and brother actually did in China. We know they acted as emissaries. We also know Marco Polo ruled one of the larger cities for some time. This city, like Beijing, is described in detail because he lived there for a long time, but most other cities remain vague and anonymous. These are also the better parts of the stories.  So I mostly got disappointed. Luckily odd customs are interesting to me, so those kept me going. In the end it was really a book about travels with some side informations if it was deemed interesting. I guess for the mediaeval people tales about strange customs and great wealths with some short tales of wars were far more interesting. For the modern reader it’s a bit dull.

With my account of the reading being repetitive, is it well written? Actually, the book was ghostwritten for Marco Polo, who mainly related what he remembered. The ghostwriter, a man of no fame, wrote everything down quite literally. The stories are written as they would have been told to an audience. As such the audience is addressed indirectly quite often, as if the teller of the stories wants to keep their attention. Although the different parts are nicely structured, now and then it happens that something must be told what was forgotten earlier. For a book this seems silly.

In a sense I guess the book would work well when read aloud for children. This way only parts would be told at a time. Reading it all almost continuously like I did is less fun. The story should have been rewritten, but of course, at that time, such things were not very important.

A book for children. That does not sound like great tales which created such fame for Marco Polo. At that time they might have, but today’s reader will be rather disappointed. There are others books from the Middle Ages which tell of much greater events, but none of them are about the riches, customs and lands of Asia. The book is interesting for those who like to know about trade and customs in 13th century Asia. There are plenty of strange things. Historically the stories about conflicts and wars are often somewhat inaccurate and vague. Also those tales are often rather very similar.

For me it was interesting enough to have read a somewhat classic story, but I would not really recommend it. That probably explains why it has become fairly unknown these days and only the legendary fame remains. Lucky for Marco Polo. There were plenty of ingredients for a legendary story, but most of it has been left out. The dish remains rather plain than high cuisine.