Thursday, January 6, 2011

Marco Polo

January 6, 2010:

We are in the Pamirs, which lie at the western end of the Himalayas, north of the Karakoram range, and among their residents are the Keiaz tribe, who "live in caves on the highest peaks, subsist by hunting, keep no flocks, said to be anthropophagous (i.e., cannibalistic), but have handsome women; eat their flesh raw." So, at least, says a Mr. Gardiner, writing in the Journal of the Asian Society of Bengal for 1853. Among the other residents of the Pamirs are great sheep, the Ovis poli, whose curved horns run up to five feet long or longer, measured along the curve, and are so large in circumference at the base that it's said foxes use them as dens to raise their kits in. "Wood says that these horns supply shoes for the Khirgiz horses, and also a good substitute for stirrup-irons" as well. Who knew horns could be so useful? The French, it turns out. According to a Paris newspaper report dated November 24, 1894, French horse owners in Lyons regularly shod their horses with sheep horns (though not the horns of the large sheep of the Pamirs) because they didn't slip on the cobblestones. "Horses thus shod can be driven, it is said, at the most rapid pace over the worst pavement without slipping."

I am reading Marco Polo, there are two ways to do this, and I'm using both. The first is to take a modern edition and just plow through the book; in my case it's Marco Polo in the Everyman's Library edition, translated by Marsden, revised by Wright, and newly revised and edited by Peter Harris, with a short introduction by the great English travel writer Colin Thubron. It's a handsome edition, easy to hold, beautifully printed. But the notes are minimal, and nothing demands notes more than Marco Polo. Just the names alone are daunting. Cities have their old names and their new; towns the same; peoples likewise. The maps are inadequate and nobody demands maps more than Marco, with his complicated itinerary, his many years on the road. It's not a long book, you could read it in a couple of days; but you'd come away from it thinking, well, that was interesting, but how much of it is true? And what is one to make of the amazing tales?

So I'm also reading the Yule-Cordier edition, in two volumes, published by that indispensable company Dover Books, which took upon themselves the noble task of republishing in its entirety the extravagantly annotated Yule-Cordier edition of the nineteenth century, and it is from the above, in all its Victorian splendor, that the news above about the horned sheep of the Pamirs, and the Keiaz people, comes; and I have to tell you, I haven't had this much fun since I ran down Mt. Rainier. (Actually, I boot-skied down Mt. Rainier.) The books themselves are more or less the same: same text, in other words, with some slight variations; because the texts of Marco Polo exist in any number of manuscript versions from the 14th century, and there are definitely variations. But the notes: was anybody ever more indefatigable than Sir Henry Yule and Henri Cordier? One of the things that has fascinated me for a long time is the enormous Iron Gate that Alexander the Great is supposed to have constructed somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains to keep the giant Biblical wild men Gog and Magog, who may or may not have been associated with the ten lost tribes of Israel, locked up in their mountain fastnesses, so that they could not erupt into the civilized world. Marco Polo mentions this gate in his book and it is all the prompting Yule needs to take us to Derbend, where the remains of this fabled gate and its attendant wall run along ridge lines in the mountains for a distance of eighteen or twenty miles, and there are pictures even of the remains, and the town of Derbend, washed by the Caspian Sea, and reports from people who have been there. And there it is, the legends of Alexander's life mixed with Biblical legends about Gog and Magog, and travelers' tales, and it just takes your breath away. We live in an endlessly fascinating world; we emerge from an endlessly fascinating past. The Spanish conquistadors who conquered Mexico and Peru saw themselves as following in Alexander's footsteps, and what is the legend of El Dorado but an echo of the ants as big as foxes who dug gold out of the ground in India (which Polo mentions later in his book) and piled it beside their burrows? Because the Americas were the new Asia.

I read through the modern edition of Marco and then turn to the Yule-Cordier when I run into something I want to know more about. This is what it means to have a large library, and to dig into it. I acquired the Yule-Cordier years ago, and it has sat on my shelves unread for maybe twenty years. The Everyman's Library edition I've had for maybe eight years. Now I'm reading them both, and I don't want it to end. This is my gold, gold of the mind, and it is why I've wound up with 7,000 books.