Explorer Marco Polo, and first President Bush

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Three years after returning home from his fabulous 24-year journey to the East, Marco Polo, a Venetian naval commander captured by the Genoese in 1298, found himself sharing a cell with a Tuscan romance writer, Rustichello of Pisa, who was looking for a way to while away the time in prison. Their only common language was French, and thus, suggests historian Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo’s famous “Travels” was originally composed in, essentially, fractured French.

In Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (Knopf, $28.95,415 pages, illus.), Mr. Bergreen has managed make wonderful sense of what he describes in his endnotes as a disarray that reminded him “of a manuscript dropped on a flight of stairs, then gathered up, with many of the pages out of order.”

Mr. Bergreen argues that the evidence “overwhelmingly shows” that Marco Polo went to China and that the most interesting question therefore concerns why the suspicion persists that he did not. The reason may rest with his “particular way of looking at the world. He went east at the age of seventeen, and he came of age in the Mongol Empire, speaking languages he acquired en route, and living in a vibrant ethos combining Mongol, Chinese, Buddhist, Nestorian Christian, and Indian influences … .His account reflects his Mongolian coming of age and sensibility.”

In addition, in comparison with the accounts of earlier travelers, says the author, Marco Polo “freely mingled fact and fantasy, personal experience and legend, all of it buttressed by straightforward assessments of the people and places he encountered, and all of it energized by his braggadocio.”

Mr. Bergreen begins with the first journey of the Polo merchant family — Marco’s father and uncle — to the Mongol empire long before Marco was born. Kublai Khan liked the pair and commissioned them to serve as his ambassadors to the pope. When they made the return journey East, young Marco accompanied them, learning numerous languages, surviving a yearlong bout of tuberculosis, absorbing exotic cultures and developing diplomatic skills as they traveled.

When they finally reached Kublai Khan’s court, the emperor took Marco Polo into his service and for the next 17 years they “participated in a most unusual partnership as master and servant, teacher and disciple, and even father an son.” Marco’s facility with languages made him especially useful to the khan as an emissary and observer throughout the empire.

For a time he was a tax assessor. He was amazed by the Chinese use of coal and by their use of paper, silk, and salt cakes as money. He was captivated by Buddhism and some other Eastern religions, and alternately intrigued and repelled by diverse sexual practices.

The Polos eventually proved so useful to Kublai Khan that they feared he would never allow them to return home, lest their departure appear to be a sign of his diminishing power. They solved this problem by proposing to escort a princess bride on her journey to King Argon’s kingdom — “the only event described by Marco that is confirmed in detail by Chinese and Mongol sources,” says the author.

The khan died two years after the Polos’ departure. Sadly, the Polos were robbed of a significant part of the fortune they had earned in their decades abroad when they reached an outpost of the Byzantine Empire on the Black Sea. All that remained were the jewels they had bought with much of the gold the khan had given them, which they had sewn into their clothing.

Mr. Bergreen’s book is a remarkably coherent and readable biography and travelogue.

•••

“For a period of two years, from 1989 until early 1991, George H. W. Bush made a series of very good decisions, some of which deserve to be considered great.” So writes Los Angeles historian Timothy Naftati in the latest of the presidential mini-biographies being published by Times Books George H. W. Bush, ($22, 202 pages).

There are two Bushes — the ambitious politician from Texas with a finger to the wind, and the pragmatic, experienced president who handled extraordinary foreign policy challenges with sensitivity and skill.

Mr. Bush served with distinction as a Navy aviator in World War II, graduated from Yale, and then moved to Texas to make money in the oil business. He became active in Republican politics and ran for office with mixed results: he was defeated in a campaign for the U.S. Senate but subsequently served two terms in the House.

Then came a string of appointive offices: U.S. representative to the United Nations, Republican national chairman, our first de facto ambassador to China. But his political career appeared stalled. According to Mr. Naftali, when President Ford named Mr. Bush CIA director in 1976 both George and Barbara Bush cried, for the appointment “seemed … to mark the end of Bush’s political career.”

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