Monday, September 17, 2007

Marco Polo (again)

What follows is my review of The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo. You can find this review and more by checking out my profile on Goodreads.

Here's a book that looks fantastic on the cover: it's the story of Marco Polo's incredible travels to the East, told by the man himself. Then you open the book and look into it a bit and realize that it might be boring against all odds. For one, it isn't the tale of his adventure. Instead, it's a systematic description of all the countries one can find east of Italy. Check that: no narrative.

Then you actually start reading and you find out that no one—not Marco Polo, not the scribe who wrote down his account as they both languished in prison—could bleach the book of its wonder. I'm not kidding. Despite their best efforts to not write an adventure, the adventure shines through. I read this book in long spurts, careful not to worry about soaking up the long, listlike information on each country, instead letting the sheer weirdness of the world wash over me. I flew through reports of roads manned by bandits and directions from oasis to oasis in the deserts (much of the book reads like a seven-hundred-year-old Lonely Planet guide) so I could slow down and marvel at stories like his account of the first assassins—young men drugged and taken to a paradise of women and wine they were told was heaven. After a week there they were drugged and returned to the real world, only to be told that getting back depended on their unbending devotion to the potentate who controlled access to "heaven."

Alexander the Great shows up from time to time as well, the truth of his legacy already twisted by history. But all of that pales to what Marco tells us about the great Khan's court: I was floored. Let me put it into context for you. I always wanted to be completely dumbfounded by the great wonders of human construction—things like the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge—and it never happened to me until I stood in the courtyard at the main palace in Seoul. Something about the wide expanse paved by huge stones, all done for the love and reverence a people had for a king, knocked me senseless. I could write an essay extolling the wonder of the place, something meant to celebrate the number of man hours and the immense wealth necessary to construct such a wonder. My essay could easily be one-upped by one explaining the pyramids or the Great Wall, pushing the immensity of human achievement to the limit. But whatever any essay totes as the end-all—skyscrapers, space shuttles, lost continents, you name it—Marco Polo's account of Kublai's empire will smash it. It was to big, too great, too much. And to top it all, the emperor seems like a decent guy.

And that's only half of the book. Polo gets to wander around for another eighty pages or so before concluding that he's covered the known world. My verdict: entirely worth it. And there's no test at the end, so you can breeze through all the geography (though having a map handy can be quite fun—I can only imagine what a dedicated Google Earthling could do) and just enjoy the feeling of peeking in on a world of culture that has more or less disappeared completely.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Though this is completely unrelated to the post, I still thought it worth mentioning that I was pleasantly surprised when I went to type in your blog and left out the fourth "o" (or did I leave out the second "o"?). Happy Birthday, Cher!