Book Review: Revisiting a great, enduring classic of travel literature

Book Review: Revisiting a great, enduring classic of travel literature

By Dipavali Hazra | | 18 June, 2016
A miniature artwork depicting Marco Polo.
A new translation of the 13th century classic chronicling the journeys and adventures of Marco Polo is true to the original spirit of The Travels, wavering between fact and fiction, writes Dipavali Hazra.

The Travels by Marco Polo

Translated by Nigel Cliff

Penguin classics

Price: Rs 824

Pages: 443

 

Long, long ago when journeys were measured in months and years and passports didn’t control movement, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo travelled the Orient for a full 24 years and noted his experiences in a book called The Description of the World.

The tome is now rather plainly referred to as The Travels, for the world has expanded substantially, especially since Columbus, inspired by Polo’s chronicles, set upon his mission to find India via an alternative route and “discovered” America instead. It is said he carried a copy of The Travels with him on his journey across the Atlantic. In December last year, Penguin produced a new hardback translation by Nigel Cliff of the seminal works by Polo, which makes for an amusing travelogue for the modern reader. The paperback version of the classic’s first all-new translation in over fifty years is expected in August.

Although Polo’s version of the East is strongly disputed by some scholars who suggest that the merchant barely ventured beyond his birthplace Italy and that his manuscript was a product of lazy armchair travel writing, later travellers have corroborated the things Marco saw, and The Travels remains one of the first sources of detailed information on Asia by a European traveller. The book was compiled when Marco was imprisoned after participating in a war against Genoa, a few years after his return from the East. A fellow inmate named Rustichello, who was a romance writer, was most likely the scribe who took Marco’s narrations. In the prologue, Rustichello recommends the book as essential reading to those “who wish to know the various races of men and the various peculiarities of the regions of the world”.

It often falls upon the reader to discern fact from fiction and it is not hard to spot the latter when it appears. The miracles performed by Christians, like the man who moved mountains with his faith in Christ, are a regular occurrence in Polo’s tales.

While Polo’s attention to such details may have primarily been an aspect of his nature, it could also be attributed to Kublai Khan’s appetite for colourful information which he expected from his emissaries, whom he sent on missions across his great empire. Under the services of the “Great Kublai Khan”, Polo was one such diplomat, who, unlike the others, brought back tales of curiosities and novelties of the countries that he visited — tales that were retold to the eager Khan.

Later, in his cell in Italy, that enormous reserve of memory would serve as fodder for the book, which recounts stories that are sometimes fabulous, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes accurate but rendered a fantastical character upon being viewed and narrated through a foreigner’s eye.

It often falls upon the reader to discern fact from fiction and it is not hard to spot the latter when it appears. The miracles performed by Christians, like the man who moved mountains with his faith in Christ, are a regular occurrence in Polo’s tales to establish the West’s superiority as far as “their God” is concerned. For the East, Polo notes, with its riches, spices and exotic beasts and vegetation, far surpassed the wealth of Europe. And the undisputed Lord of all this treasure was Kublai, who ruled over vastly diverse people — Christians who worship Christ, Jews who  worship Moses, Saracens whose leader is Mahommet  (Muhammad) and idolaters who worship Sakhyamuni Burkhan (the Buddha). Kublai is eulogised extensively, but despite this it is reasonable to conclude that he did indeed treat his subjects with tolerance, eating with each of the communities on days of their principal feasts, because, he says, “by worshipping all the four prophets to whom the whole world does reverence, I may be sure of worshipping He who is the greatest and truest of them all.” A lesson in liberal thinking where it is perhaps least expected —from the leader of a tribe of conquerers who left death and plunder in their wake. In fact, drawing upon the similarity between the name of one tribe of Mongols —the Tatars — and the hell of classical mythology —Tartarus — Western Europeans “christened the whole infernal horde Tartars”, Nigel writes.

The book reads engagingly for the most part, describing the languages, customs, religions, currencies, costumes and the trade of the people on Polo’s route. There are digressions to nearby regions of which the merchant presents what he has heard — much of the South East Asian islands have been glossed over in this manner, according to scholars. Many a place he humorously dismisses, after a perfunctory introduction, with the words “there’s nothing else worth of note here and so we move on to (the next place)”. Many a page one must laboriously plough through, relating, I daresay, rather dull exploits of Kublai Khan and the Tatars. But in the end you are rewarded by a richer view of (this part of) the world then, which you may be thrilled to find almost as cosmopolitan and globalised as today’s. Polo even observes a prelude to what was to come in the future — the medieval equivalent of cheap Chinese goods flooding foreign markets — when in India, traders dumped Chinese horses that wouldn’t survive a tropical climate, sealing a demand for the beasts in the following year.

When Polo was on his deathbed, so the legend goes, he was prodded by those gathered round to confess whether he really saw all that he wrote about in his bestselling travel book. He replied that he hadn’t revealed even half of what he had seen. To put it in Polo’s (or Rustichello’s) repetitive words — What more shall I say? 700 years later, the book may no longer be a faithful travel guide, if it ever was meant to be one, but travel through time is an attractive possibility and an interesting one too.

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