Book Reviews

30 novembro, 2007

165) Agora, o verdadeiro Marco Polo (ou pelo menos parece...)

Once Upon a Time in China
By BRUCE BARCOTT
The New York Times Review of Books, December 2, 2007

Book review:
MARCO POLO: From Venice to Xanadu
By Laurence Bergreen.
Illustrated. 415 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.

Here’s a lesson in the graceful acceptance of defeat. In 1298, the Genoese navy bested the Venetian fleet at the Battle of Curzola. Unable to live with the disgrace, one Venetian commander, Andrea Dandolo, killed himself by beating his head against his ship’s mast. Another Venetian leader, Marco Polo, surrendered calmly, was taken prisoner and spent a few years writing his memoirs in comfortable captivity. Dandolo’s fame died on the deck; Polo’s will outlive our grandchildren. Few famous names have as much vagueness attached to their exploits, though. Marco Polo opened Asia to European trade, so we’re told, but we generally don’t know much else. Laurence Bergreen remedies that by bolstering Polo’s reputation and arguing for his historical importance in a book as enthralling as a rollicking travel journal. Bergreen, who has written biographies of Louis Armstrong, James Agee and Irving Berlin, turned his attention to ancient explorers with “Over the Edge of the World,” which tracked Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. I was a fan of that book, but “Marco Polo” far outshines it, and not surprisingly. Marco Polo, unlike Magellan, left his biographers a masterpiece of a memoir to work with.

Marco Polo wasn’t the first European to venture into what we now know as China; he wasn’t even the first Polo. In 1253, Marco’s father, Niccolò, and uncle Maffeo set off on a trading journey to the heart of the Mongol empire established by Genghis Khan. To their contemporaries, this was madness. Genghis Khan had established his kingdom by leading expert warriors, 100,000 strong, on campaigns marked by extreme brutality. Word got around. In Europe, Bergreen writes, “the Mongols were considered Satan’s spawn, among the most lawless, violent and sinful people on the face of the earth.”

The Polo brothers knew something their peers didn’t: Genghis Khan and his successors were pitiless warriors, but they were just as fierce about keeping the post-conquest peace. Sensing a chance for profit in the Pax Mongolica imposed across Asia, the Polo brothers journeyed to the court of Genghis’s grandson and imperial heir, Kublai Khan. The man they met bore no resemblance to his reputation. Kublai Khan welcomed foreign traders and exhibited a rare tolerance and interest in all religions, including Christianity.

Sixteen years later — business trips were a stretch back then — Niccolò Polo returned to Venice to find that his wife, now dead, had given birth to a son 15 years earlier.

In 1271, Niccolò and Maffeo took Marco with them on another journey to the court of the great Khan. Marco hit it off so well with the emperor that he stayed with the Mongol ruler for the next 17 years, earning his keep as a tax assessor and trusted adviser. Acting as Kublai Khan’s eyes and ears, Marco roamed Asia and Africa and reported back to the emperor on the people and taxable commerce he encountered. Shortly before Kublai Khan’s death in 1294, Marco returned to Venice, assumed his place as a prominent merchant, fought the Genoese at Curzola and eventually wrote his famous memoir.

He should have been forgotten by history. The merchant Benjamin of Tudela and the Franciscan missionaries Giovanni da Pian del Carpini and William of Rubruck beat him to market with manuscripts about their travels in the exotic land. But Marco Polo, Bergreen points out, had two advantages rival authors lacked: he took great notes and had a terrific ghostwriter.

On his return journey to Venice, Marco Polo carted back years’ worth of journals and reports. While a captive of the Genoese, he sent for those notes (nobility had its privileges even in a prison) and used them to jog his memory. Also prodding him was his co-author, Rustichello of Pisa, a fellow prisoner and experienced writer of popular romances. Rustichello knew how to play up the drama, and in Marco Polo he found a rare subject. “Without the stubborn Pisan to force the Venetian wayfarer to sit still long enough to dictate his overflowing reminiscences,” Bergreen notes, “the story of Marco’s travels would never have been written.”

What the two came up with was nothing short of a blockbuster. Marco Polo’s “Travels” spilled over with sex, violence, suspense, exotic lands, strange people and bizarre practices. Mongol horsemen thundered out of its pages. Marco dazzled readers with descriptions of the singing sands of the Desert of Lop and a firsthand account of the metropolis of Quinsai, now known as Hangzhou, the most advanced and prosperous city in the world. Marco recounted the cutthroat politics of Kublai Khan’s court in all its delicious drama, complete with power-mad counselors, back-stabbing colleagues and grisly executions.

Temptations of the flesh abounded. Marco was forever stumbling into the 13th-century version of the farmer’s daughter joke. Time and again the delighted young man — remember, he was teenager when he set out from Venice — found villagers lined up outside his tent offering their nubile daughters for his pleasure and their honor. His description of Kublai Khan’s sexual talent search, with scouts scouring the provinces to send the best of the best to the emperor’s bedchamber, reads like a fable spun by Scheherazade.

Lest readers think his journey was one big Tom Jonesian romp, Marco included the dark side, too. He had to elude marauders, survive shipwrecks and cross treacherous deserts. Anxiety, loneliness and thirst were constant companions. In Myanmar, he survived a night among villagers who regularly murdered noble visitors to trap their souls and bring good fortune to the house. Poor Marco. As he rode into each new town, he didn’t know whether he was checking into the Playboy mansion or the Bates Motel.

The world he encountered was stranger than any fable he’d been told in Venice. “Wherever he roamed,” Bergreen writes, “Marco Polo found examples of the natural order of things overturned: astrologers conjuring up tempests at will; salt employed as money; householders inviting strangers to lie with their wives, sisters and daughters; deadly serpents yielding life-saving medicine — a dizzying succession of curiosities and paradoxes.”

Curiously, the figure who makes the greatest impression in Bergreen’s biography isn’t Marco Polo but his patron, Kublai Khan. Marco was many things: master capitalist, ancient journalist, all-time champion traveler. As a person, though, he’s a bit thin and empty. He’s more of an Everyman watching amazing events unfold.

Kublai Khan, by contrast, comes off as both a giant of history and a man of flesh and blood. His excesses were legendary, of course — Samuel Taylor Coleridge immortalized his summer palace, Xanadu — but the emperor doesn’t deserve the Caligula rap. His religious tolerance and encouragement of international trade marked him as a ruler with wisdom that put him centuries before his time. Marco describes Khan as a bold, politically deft administrator who knew how to play territories and factions off one another to keep the kingdom’s peace. The emperor used paper money, unheard of in Europe, to unify the empire’s economy. “Marco revealed Kublai Khan’s splendid realm not as a static, remote fantasyland populated by savages,” Bergreen writes, “but as a vital state constantly on the alert for danger — an empire that never slept, where swift messengers moved by night if necessary, their way marked by reassuring rows of trees and lit by flickering torchlight.”

In the end, Marco Polo’s greatest contribution to history was to deliver this simple news to Europe: The Asians, they’re not so bad. They’re kind of like us. In some ways, they’re better.

Bruce Barcott is a contributing editor at Outside magazine. His book “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” will be published next year.

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