Marco Polo: from Venice to Xanadu, by Laurence Bergreen

Travels with Polo the drug addict
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The Independent Culture

Like God, it seems that Marco Polo is one of those figures fated to be continually reinvented in our own image. The 13th-century Venetian explorer has in turn been dubbed a bold explorer, a capitalist merchant and, most sceptically, a liar, with some questioning whether Polo ever went to China. In this biography, Laurence Bergreen's stated aim is to bring the real man to life. Bergreen assumes almost a shrink's knowledge of his subject and gives us a curiously contemporary (or perhaps a New York) Marco Polo, who suffers in turn from opium addiction, cold turkey and – in explanation for a year's sojourn in the hills of Afghanistan – "severe emotional problems".

Bergreen has researched his subject admirably. He starts his tale in 1298, long after Polo's travels are over, on the eve of the Battle of Curzola, in which the Venetian fleet is about to lose catastrophically to the Genoese. Marco Polo is captured and interned. Among the many other detainees in Genoa is a writer of Arthurian romances called Rustichello of Pisa, who is convinced that Polo's stories would be a hit.

It is to this unlikely accident of both story and ghost-writer that we owe The Travels of Marco Polo. Modern doubters wonder if Polo went to China. Why, they ask, does he not mention commonplace things such as the Chinese writing system, tea or foot-binding (recently in fashion)? They also wonder how the pedantic Chinese accounts fail to mention this foreigner.

Some of the answers lie in the genesis of this work. It was narrated by a pompous old man to a keen hack, in a language in which neither man was proficient (the original was in courtly Old French). The work was then translated and retranslated, added to and amended, and now exists in a number of conflicting versions which make it unclear at times exactly what Polo is claiming to have seen. But recent evidence from Chinese accounts and archaeology verify Polo's claim to have been in China, although it seems that the importance of his role has become exaggerated.

Marco Polo was born in a Venice that was wracked by political turmoil. Before he was born his father and uncle left for business in Constantinople. His mother also died, and Marco was 15 when his father and uncle suddenly returned, claiming that they had assigned by the fabled Kublai Khan to bring 100 priests from the Pope and oil from the Holy Sepulchre. Christianity was already in China: Kublai Khan's mother was a Nestorian Christian.

The elder Polos clearly thought the return trip worth the risks, and it is this journey and Marco's years in China that make up his tale. Bergreen's book follows the original closely, long quotations interspersed with commentary and musings on what Polo might have been feeling or seeing. Unfortunately, Bergreen keeps trying to up the drama with a Big Brother-style narration, which repetitively returns to Polo's sexual awakening, possible liaisons and imagined dangers.

These additions often fail to illuminate. Some are banal, with Bergreen explaining – as the Polos pass through modern Afghanistan – that if they became lost, "No rescue party would have come looking for them". There is an art to the collection of information, but it is a far more challenging business to tell that information in an engaging way. It seems that Bergreen has been overwhelmed by the amount of material he has uncovered.

There is no diversion, either speculative or informative, that Bergreen does not follow. It is a shame, because there is a lot of work behind this book, and Polo's journey is as relevant now as ever. Vast numbers of Western businessmen travel east in pursuit of profit: as Marco did, more than 700 years ago.

Justin Hill's 'Passing under Heaven' is published by Abacus