cover image Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

Laurence Bergreen, . . Knopf, $27.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4345-3

Even in his own day, the famed 13th-century travel writer Marco Polo was mocked as a purveyor of tall tales—gem-encrusted clothes, nude temple dancing girls, screaming tarantulas—in his narrative of his journey to the Chinese court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. In this engrossing biography, Bergreen (James Agee: A Life ), while allowing that “mere facts... were never enough for Marco,” finds him a roughly accurate and perceptive witness (aside from the romantic embellishments and outright fabrications concocted with his collaborator Rustichello of Pisa) who painted an influential and unusually sympathetic portrait of the much-feared Mongols. Bergreen follows Polo's disjointed commentary on everything from Chinese tax policy to asbestos manufacturing, crocodile hunting and Asian sexual mores—Polo was especially taken with the practice of sharing one's wife with passing travelers—while deftly glossing it with scholarship. Less convincing is Bergreen's attempt to add depth to Polo's “lurid taste and over-heated imagination” by portraying him as both a prophet of globalization and a “pilgrim and explorer of the spirit.” Polo's spiritual trek didn't take him very far, since he ended his days back in Venice as a greedy, litigious merchant. Still, the result is a long, strange, illuminating trip. 16 pages of photos, 3 maps. (Oct. 25)