Toward the end of last year, I read Laurence Bergreen’s biography of Marco Polo. Subsequently, a buddy of mine not only clued me in to but provided a copy of Gary Jennings’ fictionalized narrative of the Venetian’s Asian wanderings in The Journeyer. I ran across a copy of another of Jennings’ works–Aztec Rage–years ago in a summer cabin or some such place, got started on it, but never finished and never got back to either the book or Jennings.
There are a couple of interesting discrepancies between the biography and the novel. Apparently, one of arguments against the verisimilitude of Polo’s account is that he never mentions the great wall. Bergreeen defends him by saying the wall wasn’t up when he was there. Jennnings has Polo giving detailed accounts of how it was built and of its effectiveness (not very). My googling tells me the wall was started around 700 B.C. I don’t care enough to track down the truth, but it’s a head scratcher.
Bergreen and Jennings agree that Marco first entered the great Kahn’s kingdom with his father and uncle, who had already concluded one extensive stay there and had contracted to return with 100 Christian priests (They fail to fulfill the contract.) to add to the emperor’s heterogeneous collection of religious philosophers. Bergreen however, adds that they were also supposed to bring a vial of holy oil from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. In this, according to him, they succeed. Jennings makes no mention of the vial, which would have fit nicely into his narrative.
The Marco of The Journeyer talks often of traveling the Silk Road. To Bergreen, the Silk Road didn’t exist as a general term until the Renaissance, a full hundred years or more after Marco’s death.
Jennings paints Polo as willingly serving the Kahn for twenty-plus years and finally going home when he’d achieved great wealth and got a little homesick. Bergreen claims That Kublai kept Marco, his father, and his uncle virtually under house–or, more properly, empire–arrest, that they had to contrive and deceive greatly and dangerously to get back to Venice. Perhaps new facts emerged since the 1984 publication of The Journeyer, but I find the divergences puzzling nonetheless.
The book itself seems to me more of an encyclopedia than a novel. During the course of Marco’s travels from Venice to Jennings contrives a thousand situations for Marco to be instructed by various and sundry in customs and mores martial, sexual, political, culinary, financial, commercial, monetary, sexual, floral, faunal, bestial, avial, marital, theological, sexual, meteorological, cartological, ichthyological, ethnic, sexual, sartorial, architectural–among others. And did I mention sexual? It’s not just a recurring theme for Jennings, it almost amounts to an obsession. Nevertheless, the range of facts and knowledge the book contains in its eight hundred pages steps beyond remarkable into stunning. You can, for example, learn how to build and sail three or four different kinds of ships. How to diagnose and cure a multitude of diseases and injuries, how to navigate by stars and/or sun on land or sea and on either side of the equator. You can learn admiration or contempt for a plethora of religions and cultures.
Jennings simply and cleverly invests the text with a veneer of authenticity and ancientness by the device of spelling–”Kithai” for “Cathay,” “To-Bhot” for “Tibet,” “Karwan” for “Caravan,” and so on. The method orients readers geographically and culturally without yanking them into the modern world. Good job with that, but there is this still this bothersome matter of the lack novelizing or storytelling.
Most of the book consists of Polo traveling from one location to another, perhaps encountering some adventure or another along the way, then undergoing tutelage on the local way of life. The journey itself is the through-line. Thus, there is little ongoing conflict or suspense. The closest we come is an intrigue in the beginning which provides the impetus for Polo to get out of Venice our young master’s ongoing cat-and-mouse game with a certain Arab counselor of Kahn’s, which is an exciting and captivating series of episodes. However, that takes less than two hundred pages of the whole. It proves Jennings can write that kind of stuff, and it would have pleased me if he had included a great deal more of that kind of material in The Journeyer.
Yet, I have now spent some weeks and a number of pages with the European perspective of the Mongol empire, have learned a good deal of history (bet you didn’t know that Beijing is there because Kublai Kahn put it there and established the Forbidden City and surrounding area. See what I mean?), and am much improved for the experience. It’s been an entertaining and educational ride. I’m glad I took it.