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Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
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From Venice to Xanadu

A-Marco PoloWhen the famed 13th-century Venetian trader and explorer Marco Polo first published The Travels of Marco Polo, he offered to Europeans the first glimpse of the much-feared Mongol empire established by Genghis Khan—in all its tales of strange animals, luxuries, sex, violence, politics, and glory. Attempting to reconcile mythology with history, Laurence Bergreen explores Polo’s travels and legacy. Polo set out for Asia in 1271 with his father and uncle, entered Kublai Khan’s inner court, remained his trusted adviser for 17 years as he traveled throughout the empire, and helped open Asia to European trade. When he returned to Venice, Polo penned his famous memoir with the aid of a romance author. If together they embellished Polo’s travels, they nonetheless introduced Europeans to an exotic new land.
Knopf. 415 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 140004345X

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"For the reader who likes to match myths of history with realities, this book will be a constant surprise and delight. … Celebrated in Coleridge’s great poem, this most alliterative of rulers did have his Xanadu, more wondrous and amazing than either author guessed." David Walton

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[Bergreen bolsters] Polo’s reputation and [argues] for his historical importance in a book as enthralling as a rollicking travel journal. … Curiously, the figure who makes the greatest impression in Bergreen’s biography isn’t Marco Polo but his patron, Kublai Khan." Bruce Barcott

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Marco Polo is a new take on Polo, a postmodern re-imagining that brings him to the land of the Mongols as a European and then follows him back home a quarter of a century later to Venice as a quasi-Asian. … In other words, in this reading of Marco Polo’s travels, the hero undergoes the kind of change that the best travel writers always claim to have undergone." Tony Lewis

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Bergreen’s] narrative moves fluidly and includes much interesting information, without getting bogged down in excessive detail. … His years with Kublai Khan, Bergreen believes, raised the historical value of the Travels to inestimable worth." Irene Wanner

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Bergreen] has, by his own account, tinkered a little with chronology and has adopted— and seems to believe—the longest and most personal of the many narrative versions. … Almost inevitably, Bergreen’s book is less a true biography than a sumptuous retelling of this great narrative, bulked out with the fruits of much research and some overblown speculation." Colin Thubron

Critical Summary

Laurence Bergreen, the author of books about Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, James Agee, and Ferdinand Magellan, traveled Marco Polo’s route across Mongolia and China to conduct research for Marco Polo. Part biography, part travelogue, and part scholarly analysis, the book offers a glimpse of an exotic Asia that few knew at the time—and that Bergreen, with his rich research and stories, mostly corroborates. Bergreen posits Polo as an early promoter of globalization, an open-minded traveler who adopted some of Kublai Khan’s philosophies and carried them back to Europe. If Bergreen sometimes succumbs to speculation (Polo’s egotism is well recorded, though his time in China is not), Marco Polo will immortalize the famed traveler—again.

Also by the Author

Over the Edge of the World Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2004. Although Bergreen tells a well-trodden tale, his lively account of Magellan’s three-year circumnavigation of the globe will transport readers to tropical islands and introduce them to what were considered, in the early 1500s, exotic cultures.