24
Feb
14

The Travels by Marco Polo

The TravelsThe Travels by Marco Polo (trans. Ronald E. Latham)

Today, it’s relatively easy to hop on a jet and find yourself on the other side of the planet, to catch a Greyhound and travel to the far coast. And it’s an obvious point, but even 100 years ago, that was unthinkable. You could catch a ship and travel across the Atlantic, but that took time. It wasn’t something you could bang out over a weekend.

And the other day, while I was looking at flights online, I was reminded of a book I’d read a few months before: The Travels, Marco Polo’s account of travelling to the far East and back again in the 13th century.

The product of several different relationships, all of which happened at just the right time, The Travels of Marco Polo is an interesting document of one of the first men to really travel. Marco was the son of a merchant and travelled across Europe, Asia and the Indian Ocean in a time when most people never left their hometowns. He met with people on the coast of Africa, travelled as far north as the Arctic Ocean and spent years living in China in the court of Kublai Khan. As translator Ronald Latham notes in his introduction, not only was Polo’s route unprecedented, some of the places he travelled weren’t widely used for centuries afterwards.

Born in Venice to a family of traders who travelled as far east as Constantinople, Polo just about had travel in his genes. Although he didn’t spend much time with his dad as youth (young Marco remained at home), the two of them set out on a trading expedition in 1271. They wouldn’t return for nearly a quarter of a century.

In his book, Polo writes of travelling overland at first, up through the Middle East and across modern China. His trip took him across the Gobi desert to mainland China. Mostly, his book’s concerned with things he experienced first-hand, only rarely falling into fantasy and rumour. It’s interesting to compare him to Sir John Mandeville, who colours a mostly fictional narrative with flourishes borrowed from Polo.

By the time Polo returned to Venice, the area was in turmoil and he soon found himself on a warship and then in prison. It was here he met with Rustichello, a capable writer of Arthurian romances who’d turn what could have been a handbook of trade routes, cities and inventories into a coherent trek across the world.

By and large, Polo’s book is pretty plain: he mostly sticks to what he saw first-hand and only occasionally indulges in the fantastic; although when he does it’s pretty memorable: people with the heads of dogs, a story about a drunk Russian who got his beard frozen to his wife’s butt, unicorns living in the jungle. Just as interesting are the details he omits like The Great Wall or Chinese writing. It’s likely that Polo was setting this down for the people who’d follow him on trade routes, and even then only at Rustichello’s direction. Did he only mention what he thought was relevant to other traders? Did he forget? Or was the book based more on rumour than he cared to admit? We’ll likely never know.

Such arguments are a counter to the book as a literal truth or guidebook. Today it’s value is it’s look back at a world unrecognizable to us, at once fantastic and ancient. This world Polo travelled closed shortly after he journeyed through it: the Yuan Dynasty collapsed shortly after Polo’s death, closing the Mongol-run overland route, and it was centuries before anyone else made a similar trip and lived to write about it.

That’s also looking past Polo’s greatest achievement: his book’s a fun read, a lot more fun than Mandeville or Columbus (himself a fan of Polo!). Ronald Latham’s translation for Penguin is good, too: it occasionally reads a little stiffly, but his introduction gives not only a ton of history on Polo, but on the messy manuscript tradition of his memoirs.

Rating: 8/10.  Recommended, especially for people interested in history or travel writing.

Related: You’d Have To Be Crazy To Do It: Columbus’ Four Travels

Related: Journey Through the Past: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

 

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