When this edition of the book dropped through the letterbox, I was mildly intrigued. When a reissue of the Penguin Classics edition followed a couple of days later, I took it as a recommendation from providence. This is, after all, one of the great unread ancient European books. Our own national contribution to the genre is the Domesday Book, which is also now published by Penguin; but Polo's Travels offer, unlike Domesday, the conventional pleasures of reading, in spades.
I imagine that more people have read Calvino's Invisible Cities than Polo's Travels. In Calvino's book, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of various imaginary cities he has visited - all of them, if you wish, in some way versions of his own home town, Venice. So in a sense we feel we have "read" Marco Polo already, when all we have done is seen his reflection, an upside-down image in a lagoon. (Which I suspect was precisely Calvino's intent, or one of them.) Here, then, is the original image: and it is just as remarkable.
Here are provinces where, for three hours of the day, the inhabitants immerse themselves up to their chins in water so as to escape the effects of a blistering, suffocating wind. Here are lakes of fire, worshipped by descendants of the Magi; here is the first western mention of the Old Man of the Mountains, who trained his assassins to welcome death by drugging them and then allowing them to experience all the pleasures of Paradise. Here are mountains so high that fires fail to cook food properly; here are eagles trained to kill wolves.
Here, too, is the province of Peyn, where, if the husband is absent from home for 20 days (by no means a rare occurrence in a region where the nearest town was typically five days away), the wife had a right to take another; even more enticingly, here is the district of Kamul, where the men not only are "addicted to pleasure, and attend to little else than playing upon instruments, singing, dancing, reading, writing... and the pursuit, in short, of every kind of amusement", but also offer their wives and all female relations to any strangers seeking accommodation, while they leave the house. When the local ruler, Mangu Kaan, discovered and banned the practice, crops failed, and, with the abrupt cessation of visits from outside, the area's entire income dried up. When the locals begged Kaan to reconsider, he replied: "Since you appear so anxious to persist in your own shame, let it be granted." By the time Marco Polo arrived, things were back to normal. Likewise, ambassadors to the great Khan's court were offered a different courtesan each night. Polo was away from home for 26 years, and stayed with Khan for 17 of them.
I have gone for the much older translation rather than Ronald Latham's 1958 Penguin version. The latter is more complete and, strictly speaking, more useful - Polo's text exists in numerous versions, and it's not always easy to tell what was put in later - but the Norton edition (which is a 1930 scrubbing and polishing of William Marsden's 1818 translation) not only has nice illustrations, it has an excellent introduction by Manuel Komroff, a more colourful and engaging style, and wonderful notes. Example: the people of Kashcar "are a wretched and sordid race, eating badly and drinking worse". Footnote: "Their manners have not improved. See Ancient Khotan, Sir Aurel Stein." Other notes attest to the veracity of some of Polo's more astonishing claims, including tricks that would appear to be beyond any contemporary scientist or magician. (Why should I become a Christian, asked Khan, when Christians "do not possess the faculty of performing anything miraculous"?)
Polo's travels endured so long in the imagination that, 500 years later, Coleridge was inspired to use some of their details in a work of visionary intensity. They coloured all subsequent imaginings of China until 1948 - and may do once again. This is a world of almost inconceivable possibility - and the remarkable thing about it is that so much of it turns out to have been true. Besides, how can you fail to love a travel book which, from time to time, gives up looking for marvels and declares: "Nothing else occurs here that is worthy of remark"?
Credits: This article originally appeared in 2005 in The Guardian.