Trailing Maldini in Samarkhand
by Satyajit Sarna | December 16, 2010
[The Travels of Marco Polo – Translated by William Marsden, 1948; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino, 1972]
Image above is from the Nationaal Archief's photostream on Flickr.
Call it delusion. For years, when I have thought of Marco Polo, in my mind’s eye I have seen Paolo Maldini. Therefore, I see Marco Polo playing a dangerously high line with assurance, Marco Polo bursting out of the left side of defence with the ball at his feet, or in his current avatar, Marco Polo wearing a black designer coat and sunglasses in the director’s box. The crowd loves Marco Polo; at present they wish he were still playing. Conversely, in my mind’s eye, I see Paolo Maldini riding a camel across the Gobi, Paolo Maldini frowning as a merchant in Aden, weighing sacks of pepper, Paolo Maldini confidently striding down the paved path of a Peking pavilion as an evil minister plots in the distance.
Think now of Marco Polo as a foreteller of the modern world, a world where tomatoes and potatoes (native to the new world) have become an integral part of Indian food, where Atlantic bluefin tuna is endangered because of Japanese tastes, where teenagers in Kampala wear knockoff Maldini jerseys. In 1272 A.D., when he set out, could Marco Polo have known that he would have become the most famous Venetian ever, the high priest of world travel?
Marco accompanied his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo on their voyage east from Venice, and returned in 1292 A.D., after twenty years of living in the East. When he returned, Venice was at war with Genoa and he had the misfortune of falling into Genoese hands. In prison at Genoa, he shared a cell with a fallen romance writer, Rustichiello of Pisa, who became his confidante and amanuensis, recording his adventures in Old French, as the Disavisement dou Monde, which then found its way back into Italian as Il Millione. In English, we know it as The Travels of Marco Polo. There exists no authoritative edition, merely more likely ones. Still, in the fourteenth century itself, the book was wildly popular. Over the centuries, it has become the touchstone of travellers and travel writing. Christopher Columbus’ extensively annotated copy lies in a museum in Seville. Little wonder that he wanted to go east, for what had Marco Polo not promised him?
Marco Polo travelled through Armenia and the Caucus mountains, east of Constantinople, and fell off the map, out of the consciousness of the western world. But in exchange, he discovered an Islamic civilisation at its peak. In Baghdad, which is called Baldach, he finds the Caliphate of the Arabian tales, with its intrigue and riches, “the biggest city in this part of the world”, fed by the port of Balsara – modern day Basra. What a tragedy it is that we only hear of these cities now in connection with their destruction. In contrast with the Islamophobia and paranoia rife in Europe today, The Travels is respectful and open-minded towards Islam. At the same time, ascendant Islam was exploring the world; a few decades hence, Ibn Battuta would leave Tangiers.
Image above is from the Cornell University Library's photostream on Flickr.
Marco had the eyes of a trader. He notes processes and industrial secrets, such as the smelting of zinc and antimony ore to make valuable collyrium, or the extraction of asbestos from mountains, as a sort of metallic wool. Even as he marvels at its immunity from flame, he ruefully notes, that “of the salamander under the form of a serpent, supposed to exist in fire, I could never discover any traces in the Eastern region”.
The reader follows Marco Polo through Balkh, Bukhara, Samarkand, names to conjure with, now ruins in a flat land. This is a land of distances and vanishing points, of deserts so vast that they are a month to cross at their narrowest. There are evil spirits in the sands, which imitate the calls of friends and the horns of enemies to lure the lost traveller off his path. Lost without reference points, a man would crawl to his death. Neil Gaiman uses this episode to have Marco Polo meet Dream in The Sandman, because it is one of the uncertain, shifting spaces of the world, unlinked to reality, an island of the imagination.
Marco Polo at Kublai Khan's court; a miniature from The Travels of Marco Polo.
Image above and on article thumbnail is from the Wikimedia Commons here.
When Marco Polo reaches Cathay, to encounter the magnificence of Kublai Khan’s empire, he is already familiar with the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, but is still swept off his feet by the extent of China, of its provinces and treacherous hinterlands, like Tibet. Kublai Khan is an emperor big enough for even this country. He professes no personal faith and pays casual lip service to all. His empire is full of marvellous technologies, like gunpowder and coal, practices like tattooing, and organisational means like paper money and a gold standard.
Swiftly, he rises in Kublai Khan’s esteem, becoming governor of Yan-gui and an important presence at the court. The Travels provides such an ample jump-off point for meta-fiction, and Italo Calvino, in 1972, accepted the opportunity. Calvino’s Invisible Cities invokes the central structural feature of The Travels, the description of the notable features of each new city or province, to unleash an infinity of possibilities. This is the gambit: Kublai Khan and Marco Polo lounge about the imperial pavilions, smoking opium and playing chess and Marco Polo speaks of all of the cities he has visited. They are imaginary, impossible, evocative, each like a prompt for a masterwork of fantasy, creations that owe no debt to reality. But each also contains a truth about the nature of cities.
Valdrada, for example, is a vertical city of verandas built on the shores of a still lake, so that every single action that takes place in any house is reflected perfectly in the lake. Now which is the city, and which is the reflection?
In Ersilia, the inhabitants stretch strings from house to house, whose colours indicate the relationships between their houses, whether of kinship, of love, of authority, or of business. The houses and streets are so full of string that the inhabitants of Ersilia live on the mountainside above the city, studying the structure of their lives.
Inside St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice.
Image above is from the Library of Congress' photostream on Flickr.
Kublai Khan asks Marco Polo why he never tells him about Venice, and Marco Polo replies “What else do you believe that I have been talking to you about?... Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice”. Invisible Cities is full of inversions, of converses, twisted reflections, styled answers, hidden fears. It is a slim volume and hides on bookshelves, and yet, when there is nothing to read, it falls into your hands and is again a new book. I lose copies, I gift copies, copies find their way into other cars, other houses, other people’s lives. Every time, I buy another copy with a sigh, with the same determinism as Marco Polo lying in his hammock in China, sketching out a new lie for the great Khan. As I imagine it, his hands are elegant and strong, like those of Paolo Maldini raising any number of European Cups.
Eventually, Marco Polo returned to the Venice of his birth and never left home again. After a long and prosperous life, he lies buried there, at the heart of mirror world where marble confections are hung between a blue sky and a blue sea. If you want to visit him, you can fly into the Venice Marco Polo Airport.
Perhaps, at the end of all his travels, he longed for the familiar and the certain. In the same way, the reader is affected most by that which he recognises clearly. After all the phoenixes, crystal palaces and sorcerers, Marco Polo comes to south India and notes:
“All the people of this city, as well as the natives of India in general, are addicted to the custom of having continually in their mouths the leaf called stembul; which they do partly from habit, and partly from the gratification it affords. Upon chewing it, they spit out the saliva to which it gives occasion. Persons of rank have the leaf prepared with camphor and other aromatic drugs, and also with a mixture of quick-lime. I am told it is extremely conducive to the health. If it is an object with any man to affront another in the grossest and most contemptuous manner, he spits the juice of the masticated leaf in his face.”
Some of these things clearly never change.
The Bridge of Sighs. The City of Venice.
Image above is from the Cornell University Library's photostream on Flickr.