This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
Travels in the Land of Kubilai Khan
by Marco Polo
“The reason for killing the bearded men was that the Cathayans are naturally beardless, whereas the Tartars, Saracens, and Christians wear beards.”
This exhaustive account of Marco Polo’s explorations contains amazingly precise information about everything from the materials made to build the roofs of palaces to the number of men garrisoned in certain provinces. Whether intentionally or not (and if accurate), it would have provided Europeans with detailed intelligence on the Great Khan–or simply made them quiver in fear at His omnipotence.
Based on this selection, Marco Polo was one of history’s great travel writers and collectors of detail. Darwin may have brought back samples of wildlife exotic and rare, but Marco Polo, through his words, has given us a sometimes unbearably detailed view of parts of Asia during the middle ages.
Describing one of the Great Khan’s palaces, Marco Polo not only tells us it is “reared on gilt and varnished pillars, on each of which stands a dragon, entwining the pillar with his tail and supporting the roof on his outstretched limbs,” he also tells us the canes that make up the roof “are more than three palms in girth and from ten to fifteen paces long. They are sliced down through the middle from one knot to the next, thus making two shingles.”
This is absurd speculation, I know, but I see Marco Polo furiously focusing on the width and length of those canes because behind him the Great Khan’s having a thousand rebels beheaded or drawn-and-quartered. Regardless, he’s a master of providing detail, even if the detail is apropos of nothing.
Of strangeness–of custom and of creature–there is plenty, and one passage about a Tartar ritual is worth quoting at length, for it exemplifies, perhaps even for a modern reader, how odd Marco Polo’s audience might have found his account:
…when there are two men of whom one has had a male child who has died at the age of four, or what you will, and the other has had a female child who has also died, they arrange a marriage between them. They give the dead girl to the dead boy as a wife and draw up a deed of matrimony…They hold a great wedding feast…They draw pictures on paper of men in the guise of slaves and of horses, clothes, coins, and furniture and then burn them; and they declare that all of these become the possessions of their children in the next world.
Of creatures other than ritual or carpentry there is less in this selection than the unabridged version, but you still find this pleasing description, which the translator helpfully suggests is “Evidently crocodiles,” although I am still hoping it was land-bound dragons:
They are loathesome creatures to behold.* Let me tell you just how big they are. You may take it for a fact that there are some of them ten paces in length that are as thick as a stout cask: for their girth runs to about ten palms. These are the biggest. They have two squat legs in front near the head, which have no feet but simply three claws, two small and one bigger, like the claws of a falcon or lion. They have enormous heads and eyes so bulging that they are bigger than loaves.
In other places, Marco Polo uses his descriptive powers to provide us with insight into strategies of battle that dovetail nicely with some of Machiavelli’s more concrete observations. When he describes the state of affairs in Cathay and Manzi, despite giving it an optimistic phrasing, he cannot quite disguise the fact that the Great Khan must station troops “in the open country four or five miles from the cities” in every occupied state he has conquered by force because he cannot trust his local rulers not to revolt otherwise.
However, it’s mostly a ridiculously upbeat travelogue, so much so that the jaded reader may raise an eyebrow or two as Marco Polo reports breezily on all manner of potentially weighty subjects related to Kuibilai Khan: he’s a good man, even though he’s killed a lot of people anyone he’s persecuted was corrupt; and people love to give up their daughters to him (although Marco Polo doesn’t report back on what the daughters think of this arrangement). There’s more than a little bit of the tone of a tourist come off the cruise ship for a single day and given a guided tour.
Marco Polo’s writings are also an account of the abuse of women in Asia, as time and again passages such as these crop up, although the author always manages to find some way to spin the information: “A man does not think it an outrage if a stranger or some other man makes free with his wife or daughter or sister or any woman he may have in his house…But it is taken as a favor when anyone lies with them.”
Still, on the whole, Marco Polo’s true strengths dominate his narrative: his sense of wonder and his generally non-judgmental nature. A more dogmatic man might have felt the need to lecture the reader on the moral or ethical implications of sights seen on these travels. Marco Polo, however, just lets it wash all over him and records it as best he is able.
Some readers may be fatigued by all of the details, but, in a sense, how could Marco Polo have known what to keep in and what to leave out? As a result, we have a precise snapshot of one view of the Great Khan and his holdings at one particular moment in time. There is also a bio-diversity described by Marco Polo, in countless listings of the bounty of nature, that is a sort of ghost–the kind that will haunt a twenty-first century reader with a vision of what we have already lost since then.
* Supporting my case for dragons, since crocodiles are more like scaly basset hounds, delightful to the eye in their defiantly ugly way.
The Marco Polo on the page that makes for a largely delightful read would, in his relentless specificity, make for an insufferable dinner guest.
Question for Readers
What is the most exotic travel experience you’ve ever had, and why?
Next up, Christine de Pizan’sThe City of Ladies…