By Paul Griffiths
New York: Random House, 1989
ISBN # 0-394-58296-9
274 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2010

This was one of the most challenging and different books I have read in years. I’m not sure I liked it a great deal, nor am I sure I understood lots of it. Yet is was often both fascinating and certainly challenging.

In the very first pages it would appear it was to be virtually a retelling of a seemingly true story, the composition of Rustichollo’s book about Marco Polo’s travels. The book opens in a jail cell in Genoa in 1294. Marco Polo has been arrested and is in a cell with Rustichello who was somewhat a writer and decided to write Polo’s story from Polo’s dictation while they are in jail. He later published this book as Marco Polo’s travels and the rest is history. However, even in the historical case of the Polo / Rustichello relationship, Rustichello seems to have taken SIGNIFICANT leave to doctor up Polo’s story to make it more marketable and fit better as a literary text, seemingly much to Marco Polo’s displeasure.

However, here we have a third party, the narrator, who enters into this dialogue and gradually replaces Rustichello as the author. Thus we don’t get the Rustichello version of the Polo story, but Paul Griffiths’s account of this modern day writer horning in on the Rustichello story, rewriting it in modern terms, actually, post-modern terms would be a more accurate description.

Using the Polo / Rustichello frame for this post-modernist rant is a brilliant strategy. We already have the late 13th century’s book which is in no way dedicated to truth, but to telling a good story. To this Griffith’s adds the narrator’s use of that situation to build his strong case for a world of where truth is neither a reasonable aim nor possible, thus the narrator can redo the story as he wishes.

Bit by bit Polo is no longer really in conversation with Rustichello, but with Griffiths’s narrator who has sort of taken over the novel. I did like one of the narrator’s clever ways of announcing that he had taken over. It was simply to introduce many many anachronisms into the tale, which jarred this reader at first, but soon I recognized this was just the narrator letting us know that he had, indeed, taken over from Rustichello. But the first few times it was jarring. I’m reading along, thinking I’m reading this 12th century novel when all of a sudden I read that when Polo was buying supplies they preferred he pay in Nicaraguan silver dollars and British pounds sterling. Soon I’m reading about goals posts for rugby, the use of a camera, playing Monopoly to kill time and riding in an elevator!!! Ah, yes, I did realize I wasn’t in 1170!!!!

One passage that was especially revealing to me was a conversation between Polo and “The Failed Sage,” one of the people he meets in his travels. The sage is doing some scientific research and Polo explores why he is doing this research. Polo asks:

“But my question was about the purpose of the organs, which would seem surely to be the principle aim of anatomy to uncover.

“And why,” he said,” should anatomy have an aim, any more than the organs of the body exist merely to fulfill some function?”

“Because there would be little point in doing it otherwise?”

They then have a disagreement on the purpose of science. In the end the sage seems to win the day with his post-modernist position

"Truth is all around us," he continued. "It needs no hunting, only choosing and placing in intriguing arrangements. What can be known is known already: indeed, any effort should rather be in the opposite direction. Remind me to take you ---"

"But why -- Excuse me for interrupting," I said, "but why then should the anatomist and his apprentices be going about their labors? Why should they not rather devote themselves to lives of idle luxury or monastic contemplation?"

"You ask again for a justification in your own terms. Of course their activity is pointless: so is yours, so is mine. This is a problem only for those who seek some point."

Even early on before the narrator took over from Rustichello there were some quite subtle hints. The narrator wasn’t wanting to hear what Polo SAID and REPORTED, but he was listening to Polo’s “silences” and

“He looked down as I began to wonder at what those eyes had touched but not seized.”

Nice. He doesn’t look so much at what Polo FOUND, but what he MISSED.

Little by little the narrator introduces a post-modern view of the world, often to the astonishment of Polo, who seems not to get it at all.

Another subtle move of the narrator was to have Polo himself learn of the different realities of how to do business and talk about the world. But he soon learns to operate in three very different world views in doing business.

I wasn't yet used to the hints and vacillations, about three levels beneath the actual conversation, by which business is transacted anywhere east of Cyprus. Of course I later learned how negotiations have to become ever more deeply buried and subterfuged the further east you go. Discussion in Europe is a great highway signposted by facts and outspoken opinions; in Ayas it was already a meandering lane; by the time we got to China it would be a footpath untrodden for a decade, barely distinguishable and certainly unmarked by sign or symbol. One travels into obscurity.

The hint is already there: these are just THREE of the many realities we encounter in the world of multiple meanings.

Later on the narrator is now asserting more of his own control over the account:

“If we strive for truth, we are bound to lie. Whereas if we set out instead to produce a fabrication . . .”

“I thought we had agreed,” he said, “that we are writing a fable and not a history.”

“I thought we had agreed the two are indistinguishable.”

And as the novel proceeds the world of Marco Polo disappears more and more and the novel is an account of the narrator’s alternative view of the world

It was at that point where it became less like a novel and more like short chapters of relatively unrelated tales which were there to illustrate different facets of the narrator’s world view. Two of these delighted me as incredible tales which stood on their own, and were marvelously written and gripping.

The first was of a young woman student who’s teacher had borrowed a priceless treasure from a local library for her to copy. She works on it for a couple years, and finally has made a copy that is so close to the original that even her teacher cannot tell which is which. However, in the mix up of getting ready for the teacher’s visit, she too has forgotten which is which and then must deal with what to do.

The second story that just also intrigued me is near the very end of the novel when an emperor tells a story about having ended up in a situation in which he has two consciousnesses, one which can stop the world and make it go backward and then back to the present (but never into the future). His normal consciousness is strictly limited to the present he is experiencing, unable to see into the future, even though in some cases the future has already been lived. That long story was a tour-de-force of powerful writing.

Reading the novel was not unlike listening to Bolero, it keeps rising in intensity, repeating the same theme, yet gripping one as it moves. Admittedly, however, I was fairly lost toward the last 20 pages or so.

In the end I wasn’t overwhelmed or wowed. It may well just be me. I think I am neither a modernist nor a post-modernist, but sort of caught in the middle and the transition. I come out of the Existentialist tradition of the post WWII world where moral values are much closer to the post-modernist view than the modernist. On the other hand, my view of science is more similar to the modernist period than post-modernist. I just couldn’t let myself go a fully with the total romp into the post-modern world which Griffiths has created.

In a similar place of discomfort I’m not sure I can recommend to the novel to others, yet I have to admit there are parts of it which I found fascinating, challenging and extremely well-written. But it was a hard read and not at all always satisfying. I guess the post-modernist would suggest “satisfying” isn’t necessarily an important value. And, ironically I would agree.

Bob Corbett


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