"That Truth which has the Face of a Lie", (p.116), this is John Larner's theme as he reviews Polo's famous book, an account of the Venetian's twenty-four year voyage to the Khan's court in China and back again. Larner explains why Polo's book is an extraordinary achievement, not because it is a great diary, nor because Polo was a particularly perceptive observer, but simply because it was written at all when so little hard data was coming from the East, and thus the broad influence it had on the West.
In one passage (p.85), that could usefully have come earlier, Larner explains, "...Who is Marco Polo? He is not an adventurer, a merchant, or a Christian missionary; he is rather a minor Mongolian civil servant who during his years in the East has been an observer or student of the topography and human geography of Asia, of its customs and folklore, of, above all, the authority and court of the Great Khan, all seen from a Mongol point of view. Then, having taken early retirement, he has sought an audience for his memories. Marco left Venice in 1271 at the age of seventeen. He returned in 1295, twenty-four years later, aged forty-one. Take these facts, together with a truly remarkable feature of the Book: that in describing the eastern world there is no evidence of culture shock."
This is a book for scholars, for those who have read Polo's work. The endnotes and bibliography extend for almost fifty pages, revealing to the novice the existence of an entire academic sub-stratum devoted to the study, debunking, and defense of Marco Polo. Larner analyses Polo's book and its importance, rather than Polo himself or the importance of his voyage. Readers interested in a voyage almost unimaginable in today's small, well-charted world should start with Polo's book itself, whose very simplicity and dryness inspired Larner but may put off newcomers.
Several years after returning from the East, Polo dictated the book to a cellmate in a Genoese prison. Thereafter it was translated and copied dozens of times, with each subsequent interpreter adding his own biases atop Polo's simple prose. Illustrators drew fantastic creatures of the East that Polo never mentioned. As a result, many scholars grew convinced that Polo never made it past the Black Sea and the book was a pack of lies. Larner does a credible job debunking these ideas, although he tends to fall so in love with Marco that his own defenses can appear manufactured, as on p.64 when he ascribes an obvious falsehood in Polo's book to his co-writer's attempts to spice up the text. Perhaps Polo lied, or forgot, or the co-writer misheard, but we have no way to know; there is no evidence one way or the other, and this reader wondered whether Larner's attempts to excuse Polo indicated that he had surrendered his objectivity. On another occasion (p.102), he explains away Polo's virulent anti-Muslim prejudices by suggesting these views are not really so extreme and, in any case, were part of the contemporary worldview.
The book is a good one, not without flaws, but instructive, interesting, and eye-opening. The maps and color illustrations are gorgeous, and Marco Polo himself is such a compelling figure that it is simply interesting to read more about him than he reveals in his own words