Not even Marco Polo was able to edit his own life into an all-encompassing narrative. On his deathbed, surrounded by his weeping daughters and his long-serving manservant Suleiman, he was entreated by Venetian priests to admit he had made up many of the tall-sounding tales of his travel. The holy fathers were worried that “Marco of the million lies” would go to hell if he did not finally confess that he had made up his stories of a black rock that would burn, of oil that came out of the ground, of giant sea creatures and Chinese gods. His last words were a fitting epitaph: “I have not told the half of what I saw.”
Dozens of writers have grappled with the way to best tell his story. Luckily for me, I only had to write a biography, which begins with his birth and ends with his death. For the writer of fiction, there are myriad temptations. I’ve toyed with a one-act play, in which Marco and his collaborator Rustichello pace the floor of their opulent but confining house arrest, arguing over the best way to set his knowledge down on paper. Marco is all about facts and descriptions, a tedious village-by-village account of the way east; Rustichello, a former troubadour and Crusader, wants stories of derring-do and fortean curiosities, and in one sense, it’s Rustichello’s Marco that survived through the ages.
You could plump for Italo Calvino’s method, concentrating on the relationship between Marco and his patron, Khubilai Khan, as the aging monarch demands stories of Marco’s adventures. But what of the roads less travelled? What of Marco on his homeward route, escorting the mysterious Princess Kokachin to her doomed wedding, and plunged into local conflict in Persia and befriending his Muslim counterpart, Rashid al-Din? What of Marco the official in China under the Mongols, dealing with intrigues, crimes and murders in a nation under military occupation? And what temptations there are to the historical screenwriter to edge gently out of evidence and into reasonable speculation – what if we ignored the evidence that Marco never saw Japan for himself, and inserted him into the Mongol fleet that suffered the consequences of the first Kamikaze.
The new Netflix series tries and largely succeeds to have it all, opening with a prolonged throne-room scene in which Marco shows off his knowledge of Uyghur and Mongol, and in which the Polo family’s failure to keep their promises to the Khan lead to the effective handing over of Marco as collateral to save their trading contracts. But there are nods and foreshadowings, even in those opening few minutes, of the direction that John Fusco intends to take. Khubilai’s beloved wife Chabi, a Christian, stands at his side in her distinctive head-dress. An official called Ahmad is pointedly referenced, ahead of the downfall known to all readers of Marco Polo’s Travels. A lissom figure on the sidelines appears to be Princess Kokachin, thought by some to have been the woman who stole Marco’s heart, even as he was forced to convey her to her new husband. And then the credits begin, awash with impressionistic Chinese inks that create simulacra of his tallest tales – figures and creatures that may, or may not, only exist on paper or in his mind, even as the music soars and hints at Game-of-Thrones-y intrigues and Marco’s endless, infectious sense of wonder at the sights of the Far East.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Marco Polo (US/UK) and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan (US/UK). Marco Polo, the TV series, begins on Netflix on 12th December.