Posts Tagged ‘Marco Polo’

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

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Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

March 16, 2018

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I really liked If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and have read it a couple of times. I wondered why I’d never read Invisible Cities, and something else I was reading recently re-awakened my interest and prompted me to get it and finally read it, and it was marvellous. The concept itself is astonishing: a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which the traveller describes a range of imaginary cities to the great Khan in a series of prose poems. All the cities are named after women, fall into a range of different categories, and are woven symmetrically into the whole. Interspersing the nine chapters of the book are conversations between the pair, reflecting on a range of connected ideas.

I found myself very quickly reminded of Jorge Luis Borges in a number of ways. Firstly, the writing is in short sections or chapters; like poetry, each deals with a single subject, or here, city. And the slightly magical, slightly ethereal style is also reminiscent of the great Argentinian writer, although, of course, my judgement is limited as I can read neither in the original.

Each city is different, disturbing, dislocating; each contains enough in itself, in its own story, to shake you up, make you reflect and ponder. Some will truly enchant you, others will hardly move you at all. At one point the great Khan realises that in each city Marco Polo may be describing a different aspect of Venice, his home city; equally he is contemplating aspects of our life journey in the world. Sometimes a city verges on the truly surreal, in a way in which the language itself seems to lose its meaning – rather along the lines of Ben Marcus‘ bizarre The Age of Wire and String – you read the words, and they are words you can comprehend individually, but the ways in which they are related to each other challenges perception…

Each city is its own prose poem: the cities are weird and the magic of Calvino’s words and images conjures up vivid if implausible, unreal or insane places, at times in a drug-like haze. Many of the places have a very seductive appeal, and even though the travels are going nowhere, for these places do not exist, the magical and haunting lyricism of the cities timelessly suspended in eternity carries you along in a trance.

How does it work? We listen to an intriguing story-teller; we are in the territory of myth; we are travellers visiting unknown places along with him. Words create vivid pictures, and ideas make us think. The ethereal nature of the places and the encounters carry us effortlessly along… and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s a lovely book, and I don’t use that word about many books.

William Dalrymple: In Xanadu

March 9, 2016

419DJZH9NFL._AA160_Dalrymple sets off to retrace the steps of Marco Polo, to the legendary Xanadu, in China. It’s a crazy undertaking, worthy of a student in his carefree student days – though his time is limited by the need to get back to Cambridge to prepare for his finals…

He’s travelling in 1986, so not all parts of the journey are straightforward, or even allowed. Travel between Israel and Arab nations requires a certain amount of detouring, Afghanistan incompletely off-limits, and crossing the areas of China through which Polo travelled required subterfuge and illegality, passing as it does, right next to their nuclear testing grounds.

He veers between being humorous – his tone is often bemused when he encounters various oddities of travel and people – and very knowledgeable about many interesting places along the route, which is basically the ancient Silk Road. Sometimes events, accidents, conversations take on a tinge of farce; sometimes he surprises us with details and contextual background to places and events we are perhaps vaguely familiar with. This is what I’m looking for from good travel writing: knowledge, interest and enthusiasm from the traveller. The maps are rather on the vague side, though. At times, he reminded me of Robert Byron, who travelled in the Middle East in the 1930s, and who describes, and conveys a sense of place, like very few other writers I’ve come across.

It’s an uneven work, by which I mean that some sections are leisurely and the journey and places are fully described, whilst sizeable actions of the journey are dashed through against the clock, with nothing seen or remarked on, let alone described. Such are student travels, in my experience, though I never went this far afield. Despite the haphazard voyage, the many scrapes and adventures he gets into along with his companions (two different women at different times) he nevertheless succeeds, daringly, in attaining his ultimate objective. This demands respect. But his later travels in From the Holy Mountain are far more engaging, less about him and more about what he saw.

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

Travel in the Middle Ages

January 13, 2014

51+nu5+broL._AA160_I particularly enjoy reading accounts of travel from the Middle Ages. Then I’m transported into a world with only very rudimentary maps, before the world was fully known – where are America, Australia and Antarctica? How did sailors actually know where they were? So travel was a much more complicated and chancy business. Equally, I’m talking about times in which the real world co-existed with imaginary and fantasy worlds, and the boundaries between them are very fluid indeed. Did Sir John Mandeville actually exist, and did he visit any of the places he writes about in his Travels? Marco Polo did exist and went to the places he describes, as did Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth century Arab traveller who covered more miles that Marco Polo all over the known world of his time, and Leo Africanus explored much of North Africa in the following ventury.

Jean Vernon‘s book Voyager au Moyen Age explains in great detail who travelled in the Middle Ages (he covers the period from the fiftth to the fifteenth centuries) and how they travelled, by land (on foot and horseback, alone and in groups) and by sea, and how long it took to get to places. The hardships are illustrated by copious references to writings of the time, and there’s an excellent bibliography, with pointers to lots more writers who I must track down… Many of these ancient texts are, of course, now freely downloadable from sites like Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Vernon covers not just travel to real, but also to imaginary places..

Lots of people did travel, for trade, personal and professional reasons; the journeys were often long and hard; much of Europe was heavily forested in the early Middle Ages. People were afraid of the sea, and there were lots of pirates; journeys could take ages if the weather conditions were not propitious (three weeks to cross the English Channel…)

The book is a fascinating insight into the growth of our knowledge about the world, and also into the minds of people of many centuries ago, and how they thought about themselves and their world.

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