Marko Polo and Korcula by dr. Zivan Filippi
Literary Works that Feature Marko Polo


The life and personality of Marko Polo are so charged with meaning for today's man that they have to leave their mark in contemporary literature. In this chapter we shall present two wighty novels, in which the adventures of Marko Polo on his voyage through Asia are described, and we shall mention in short one which speaks about Korcula as his birth place and about the traditional tower of the Polos, where action in the 1980-s takes place, and also the most recent imaginery dialoque between writer and literary hero. These are: the novel by Egmont Colerus, Marko Polo, The Novel of two Worlds; The Journeyer by Garry Jennings, known for his best-seller the Aztek; The Masterstroke by Marilyn Sharp; and Myself and Marco Polo by Paul Griffiths.

Egmont Colerus:
Marko Polo - the Novel of Two Worlds - a knightly romance

Starting with the traditional view that Marko Polo was born in Venice, or not taking into consideration the controversy about his Venetian origins, Egmont Colerus created, on the basis of Polo's travel book, a large novel in which he describs the character of Marko Polo very imaginatively, as well as the atmosphere which reigned in Venice in the 13th century. Court intriguers, scholars and astronomers, the doge's councillors and foreign deputies, then romantic medieval robbers - mercenaries, "bravi", the smugglers of corn and tradesmen file past the reader and they are all the a constituent part of the atmosphere of insecurity and exceptional luxury which surrounded Marko Polo during his youth. The young Marko Polo departs, together with his father Nicola and uncle Maffeo, to distant unknown "Tartar" Asia, and arrives at the court of the Great Khan Kublai, becoming his councillor. He travels through enormous areas of China and becomes an excellent connoisseur of the situation in its provinces.

Describing the stay and travel of Marko Polo across China, Colerus depicts vividly life in Kublai's empire, which was completely unknown to Europeans of that time. Colerus's novel, despite its big scope, is easy to read and one follows, with great interest, the hero - world traveller Marko Polo. The contemporary reader gets acquainted with people of that time, courtiers around the Great Khan, ministers and mandarins, missionaries and Taoist friars, writers and astrologers, who are all presented with great creative force. Colerus manages to put in this literary work all the controversies which tore up the soul of the shrewd traveller and to present in a rare way a multitude of characters who cleanse themselves "at the field of absolute consistency of desire" (G. Deleuze, F. Guattari).

After many years of "rambling adventures" concerning both Marko's spirit and body, as the writer calls them, and the fulfilment of all possible dreams of both material and spiritual richness in the world of the enchanting China, Marko returns to Venice and thus he rounds off his cyclical journey which gets, in this novel, the treatment of a knightly romance.

Marko Polo, at the age of sixty years, lives in great richness in the Venetian palace "Corte millione", surrounded by his beautiful daughters, Fatima and Moretta and by many of his friends. His faithful follower, Enrico, now the captain of the galley, brings delightful news about the new riches which he brought to the Polos after capturing three Genoese galleys in the Adriatic Sea. Among the guests, there is Orio Morosini, the youngest son of Gaspar and Melissa, with whom Marko had experienced his first love in his youth. Encouraged by his daughters and his friends Marko speaks about his adventures at the court of Kublai Khan, but he mentions also later events, notably the battle at "Curzola" in which he took part with his galley. Marko gives to his guest from Pisa, Domenico di Ferli, his "libro", "book above all books", in order that Pisa gets acquainted with the world of the East.

The novel ends with a clever scene, in which Marko talks with Dante Alighieri, who lives in exile in Venice at that time. Marko wishes to help poor Dante to return to his beloved Florence, with his richness and influence but at the same time, he feels enormous respect, because Dante had managed, by his divine work Divina Comedia, to achieve what only a very few people did. Marko finds comfort, in the words of the great Dante, because he had not been able to realize the Romantic aim of the quest: he did not become analogic to the mythical Moses or to the Redeemer who comes from the upper world, although he conquered, owing to his service at the court of Kublai Khan, the demonic powers of the lower world, connected with winter, darkness, confusion, unfruitfulness, and old age.

Marko Polo, in his quest for a world of richness and power, which he was searching far away from his homeland, realized the power of difference, which enabled him to fictionalize his actual experiences. His worldly life is coming to an end, but his writing, his "libro", the Book, by its trace and supplement, assures it of a place in eternity.

Gary Jennings:
The Journeyer - a contemporary best-seller

Whereas Colerus's novel of two worlds, as he calls it himself in the subtitle, is a pleasant, delightful story of a medieval knight, enriched with moral dilemmas and a tendency towards a philosophical explanation of the sense of life in all its diversity, the novel of Gary Jennings The Journeyer is a real postmodern best-seller of more than 1200 pages of text. Written according to the postmodern formula of success: "sex, violence, tension", that boundless saga conjures up for the contemporary reader - who is desirous of momentary relaxation and easy entertainment - splendid wild landscapes, exotic eroticism, conspiracies, battles, horrible torturing, in a word, the intoxication of the senses on every page. Thus, one of the main criteria of postmodernism is fulfilled: curiosity. After his previous best-seller the Aztec, Jennings conceived "a fabulous pie... stuffed with spices from his bursting imagination...its sweep, its humour, its vivid scenery" ("New York Times"), "a star-burst of new foods, sights, smells, noises...a baldly bawdy, robust entertainment, craftily staged and sustained" ("Kirkus Reviews"). The author achieves a postmodern novelty by a skilful device in a short introduction, where Marko Polo, at the age of sixty five answers a letter from Rustichello sent from Pisa and agrees with his proposal that they both write a new book, though this time they would include all that was omitted in the previous one. So the world would think that everything is invented, which means that it is a question of novel and not of travel book. Left out in The Million were the unbelievable, the bawdy and the scandalous.

Jennings used thus the postmodern strategy of connecting the historical with the fantastical which is in complete opposition to the realistic forms of the historical novel. Jennings sticks basically to his model, so that the reader can follow Marko's voyage from The Million in the very titles of Jennings' chapters: Venice, The Levant, Baghdad, The Great Salt, Balkh, The Roof of the World, Kithai, Khanbalik, To-bhot, Yun-nan, Xan-du, Khanbalik Again, Manzi, Champa, India, Home.

Using the technique of the labyrinth, the writer puts his hero, Marko Polo, into the stories and legends, that develop one from the other and mix with the real experiences of Marko Polo on his voyage, without a visible end and purpose.

One of the possible aims is Marko's stay at the court of Kublai Khan and his visit to the richest province of Manzi. Marko Polo had the opportunity there to develop in full all his skills but he also showed all the virtues of his character. Serving Kublai Khan, he experienced his greatest and only true love in touch with the very well educated and intelligent deaf girl Hui-sheng, who compensated her deafness with the sharpness of all her other senses and by a developed Chinese style of behaviour. The empire of Kublai Khan is an epiphanic area in which Marko discloses his Dyonisian energy and experiences the present as eternity. His daily state work and endless travelling across the Chinese provinces are accompanied by the descriptions of the festivals. He was especially attracted by the festival of the rockets and by the game of chess with living figures in which the slaves experienced the destiny of the figures in the game so "that it was rare that the flower-beds did not get moistened by blood".

Popular feasts, wanton games, entertainments with a multitude of people, circuses, fairs, luna parks, travelling plays appear in the postmodern writing as a device to break the narrative, the way that the supernatural enters the "normal" reality. Postmodern prose, like Jennings's, is the successor of the Manippean satire, which developed originally through contact with popular carnivals. Mikhail Bakhtin calls this fictional technique "carnivalized literature".

Garry Jennings made, through his novel The Journeyer, a divine person of Marko Polo because he broke the boundary between the real and the invented, between history and literature and between the author and the literary hero, as well as between the writer and the reader. All of them sail through the sea of postmodern writing, and their sailing is infinite. Its purpose is in the sailing itself.

Marilyn Sharp:
The Masterstroke - a political thriller

The American writer Marilyn Sharp stayed in Korcula at the beginning of the seventies, attended courses of the Summer Philosophical School, where she had the opportunity to meet the greatest world philosophers. Inspired by Korcula and by the atmosphere of the intellectual discussions during the hot summer months, she wrote in 1984 the novel The Masterstroke, in which the greatest part of the action takes place in the town of Korcula, while the main plot of the novel is the quest for the real origins of Marko Polo, namely Korcula, where the presidents of USA and USSR are arriving. The novel is full of intrigue and the mutual settling of accounts of secret of the services, as well as the politicians representing various ideologies, who have different views on how to resolve the lasting cold war. The warm ambience of Korcula is an ideal locus for such an historical outcome, and the protagonists of the novel have as their model the great Korcula diplomat, Marko Polo. One of the heroines of the novel is Nicole, daughter of the American secretary of state, Compton, who explores in a hired boat the Korcula archipelago, looking at the distant island of Lastovo on which, according to legend, the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus, Marko's predecessor, imprisoned for seven years. In her phantasies about the history and mythology of that part of the Mediterranean, Nicole hears the voice of sirens, which contributes to the creating of an atmosphere of an earthly paradise. Nicole's fiance, Peter Lucas and the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, Miloslavsky, climb the steps leading up to the old city beside the Renaissance loggia on the opposite side of which there is an inscription in Russian and English "Welcome to Korcula". Behind the inscription, there is part of a cassette which is to be synchronized with its other half in the house of Marko Polo. The role of the mysterious islet, often a place of action in contemporary political thrillers, is taken over by the wooded Badija, where there is a world computer centre whose aim is to control, in the Orwellian sense, the zones of responsibilities of each of the big powers. Although each of the big powers want to define exactly their "zones of responsibility", they do not have firm boundaries and they become postmodern "heterotopic" areas, like the invisible towns of the novel of Italo Calvino. The role of the victim is played by the Russian minister Miloslavsky, who wanted to depose his president Sukhov; because of this he must drink poison, whereas the medicine is drunk by the presidents of the USA and USSR in the form of chilled whisky on the warm islet of Badija, because they agreed on a new arrangement which would respect the interests of all and not just that of the big powers.

The glasses are raised for peace and a wish that the true Korcula, where the first world traveller and the great messenger of peace, Marko Polo was born, be realized in future.

Paul Griffiths:
Myself and Marco Polo - a postmodernist puzzle

The postmodernist byplay interchanging the roles of the author and the literary hero continues in the most recent literary works as in the novel Myself and Marco Polo, by Paul Griffiths, published in 1989. This London music critic of "Times" received, in 1990, the Commonwealth literary prize with this novel. It is written in the style of a refined postmodernist puzzle, in which the sections of travel literature and the Far East are gradually introduced into the text. The action takes place in the Genoese prison in the continuous dialogue between Marko Polo and his ghost-writer Rustichello from Pisa. Marko Polo constantly corrects his friend and fellow prisoner - the contributor to the text of the historical novel The Million. But Rustichello goes his own way, because for him literary truth is more important than historical accuracy. Rustichello changes, in his text, Polo's verbal narration, makes some places more beautiful, drops some items so that a completely different journey takes place before the reader's eyes: a journey in which the Far East becomes the unrealized desire of Western man, in which the past and the present are mingled.

Marko Polo's theme of the wondrous world of the Far East and the theme about Marko Polo himself, that amazing world traveller/writer, is an inexhaustable source of postmodern romantic displacements. It overflows to other genres as well, so that an opera and drama about Marko Polo have been written, while the electronic media, in film, television, and video find their inspiration in it, under the postmodern perpetual tendency to attract ever bigger numbers of consumers to the mass media drawing them into the marketing inerplay of huge numbers and big money. However, the literary text is still the most expressive of all, because it is capable uniquely of presenting Marko Polo's greatest value, as a world traveller and writer about the world: emotion, energy and excitement.


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