Marco Polo, a history of that well-traveled Venetian gentleman by Laurence Bergreen, is simultaneously one of the most interesting and one of the most irritating books I’ve read in a long time. During the whole course of reading it, I couldn’t decide whether I most wanted to find out what happened next, or throw the book out the window. How’s that for a review?
To begin with the good stuff (and there’s plenty of it): Marco Polo not only lived, but was a merchant, in one of the truly great trading cities of all time, thirteenth-century Venice. That alone would make a story. They traded with corrupt Trebizond and holy Jerusalem, fought with Genoa and Florence, obeyed the Pope and invented the law. This was before the printing press, before Copernicus, before Luther or the discovery of the New World, but not before elaborate banking practices, distant travel, and silk.
Marco and his father and uncle left Venice, hoping to make their fortunes (if they survived), and the story of their travels, when Bergreen can get out of the way and let the exuberant, irrepressible Marco tell it, is absolutely riveting. They traveled through the Taklamakan Desert (whose name essentially means “you come in but you don’t get out”), through China, India, and Southeast Asia, trading with the people there for spice, gold, gems, silk, and other exotic goods. They encountered ways of life that were new to them, from various tribes’ marital habits to Buddhism. And, of course, they met one of the greatest rulers of all time: Kublai Khan, great emperor of the Mongols, and served him for two decades as ambassadors and tax collectors all over his immense empire before finally escaping back to Venice. And, as Marco himself would say, I have not told the half of it. Each chapter is full of delights and wonders, told, mostly, in Marco Polo’s own voice.
Okay, so you’re asking yourself, what could possibly be wrong with this? A story of incredible adventure, exploration, and cross-cultural discovery, and it’s even true! And yet… The main problem with this book is that Bergreen fails utterly to understand the events from a medieval perspective, or to signal this perspective to the reader. Instead of helping the reader understand what Marco’s theological perspective on other religions would likely be (i.e. you can trade with non-Christians, they can even be admirable, but they’re not going to heaven), Bergreen gives vague hints that Marco accepted Buddhism into his own cosmology. Instead of showing the reader that the medieval mind was perfectly ready to accept miracles from holy relics, Bergreen behaves as if Marco was a jaded 20th-century traveler, wise to the ways of religious tricksters, a man who could never believe that a sacred thing could perform a healing.
This attitude — wanting to make Marco seem more modern — permeates the text. Bergreen spends a lot of time, without, as far as I can see, a scrap of evidence (he certainly provides not a single quotation), hypothesizing that Marco “may” have become addicted to opium during his stay in Afghanistan, “may” have gone through withdrawal, or “may” have continued to use it until his return to Venice, which “may” explain his depression as he got older. Yes, and I “may” be a highly literate kangaroo, but you can’t prove that, either, can you? Bergreen also tries on multiple occasions to be salacious, again with very little foundation to back him up. He suggests that Marco was a sensualist, obsessed with sex, but for proof provides only quotations observing the marriages of local tribes. Wow! Triple X! I wanted to shake Bergreen, telling him that you don’t need to spice things up for Marco Polo. It’s one of the spiciest stories ever told (literally!), just as it is.
The worst offenses, though, were the impossibly weird asides. Try this one. Discussing the local women’s costumes, which emphasized the hips, Bergreen says,
The fat-bottomed sheep climbing the mountains may have inspired women in the area to exaggerate their physiques.
Say what? Is he serious? Are people going to say of us, “Their huge-breasted chickens inspired women to have surgical saline implants”? Oh, and this one. In a passage on the awkward compromises between Marco’s exuberant narrative voice and that of his amanuensis, Rustichello, Bergreen says,
Like a medieval cathedral fashioned by anonymous artisans, the result is a spectacular but disorderly accretion of ideas, and of first, second, and third thoughts — an accidental monument to vanished civilizations.
Yeah, “disorderly” and “accidental,” that’s what I think when I look at Chartres. This quotation actually sums up rather well Bergreen’s entire patronizing attitude to the “Dark Ages.” I loved the story of Marco Polo’s exploratory travels, and when I could listen to his voice, I was enraptured. But the commentary I could have done without.