Marco Polo was nicknamed "Marco of the millions" because his Venetian countrymen took the grandiose stories of his travels to be exaggerated, if not outright lies. As he lay dying, his priest, family, and friends offered him a last chance to confess his mendacity, and Marco, it is said, replied "I have not told the half of what I saw and did."
Now, in his new novel The Journeyer, Gary Jennings has imagined the half that Marco left unsaid as even more elaborate and adventurous than the tall tales thought to be lies. From the palazzi and back streets of medieval Venice to the sumptuous court of Kublai Khan, from the perfumed sexuality of the Levant to the dangers and rigors of travel along the Silk Road, Marco meets all manner of people, survives all manner of danger, and, insatiably curious, becomes an almost compulsive collector of customs, languages and women.
In more than two decades of travel, Marco was variously a merchant, a warrior, a lover, a spy, even a tax collector - but always a journeyer, unflagging in his appetite for new experiences, regretting only what he missed. Here - recreated and reimagined with all the splendor, the love of adventure, the zest for the rare and curious that are Jennings's hallmarks - is the epic account, at once magnificent and delightful, of the greatest real-life adventurer in human history.
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Gary Jennings was known for the rigorous and intensive research behind his books, which often included hazardous travel―exploring every corner of Mexico for his Aztec novels, retracing the numerous wanderings of Marco Polo for The Journeyers, joining nine different circuses for Spangle, and roaming the Balkans for Raptor. Born in Buena Vista, Virginia in 1928, Jennings passed away in 1999 in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, leaving behind a rich legacy of historical fiction and outlines for new novels.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
VENICE1ALTHOUGH the Polo family has been Venetian, and proud of it, for perhaps three hundred years now, it did not originate on this Italian peninsula, but on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Yes, we were originally from Dalmatia, and the family name would then have been something like Pavlo. The first of my forebears to sail to Venice, and stay here, did so sometime after the year 1000. He and his descendants must have risen rather quickly to prominence in Venice, for already in the year 1094 a Domènico Polo was a member of the Grand Council of the Republic, and in the following century so was a Piero Polo.The most remote ancestor of whom I have even a dim recollection was my grandfather Andrea. By his time, every man of our house of Polo was officially designated an Ene Aca (meaning N.H., which in Venice means Nobilis Homo or gentleman), and was addressed as Messere, and we had acquired the family arms: a field argent bearing three birds sable with beaks gules. This is actually a visual play on words, for that emblematic bird of ours is the bold and industrious jackdaw, which is called in the Venetian tongue the pola.Nono Andrea had three sons: my uncle Marco, for whom I wasnamed, my father Nicolò and my uncle Mafìo. What they did when they were boys I do not know, but when they grew up, the eldest son, Marco, became the Polo trading company's agent in Constantinople in the Latin Empire, while his brothers remained in Venice to manage the company's headquarters and keep up the family palazzo. Not until after Nono Andrea's death did Nicolò and Mafìo scratch the itch to go traveling themselves, but when they did they went farther than any Polo before them had gone.In the year 1259, when they sailed away from Venice, I was five years old. My father had told my mother that they intended to go only as far as Constantinople, to visit their long-absent elder brother. But, as that brother eventually reported to my mother, after they had stayed with him there for a time, they took a notion to go on eastward. She never heard another report of them, and, after a twelvemonth, she decided they must be dead. That was not just the vaporings of an abandoned and grieving woman; it was the most likely possible surmise. For it was in that year of 1259 that the barbarian Mongols, having conquered all the rest of the Eastern world, pushed their implacable advance to the very gates of Constantinople. While every other white man was fleeing or quailing before "the Golden Horde," Mafìo and Nicolò Polo had gone marching foolhardily right into their front line--or, considering how the Mongols were then regarded, better say: into their slavering and champing jaws.We had reason to regard the Mongols as monsters, did we not? The Mongols were something more and something less than human, were they not? More than human, in their fighting ability and physical endurance. Less than human, in their savagery and lust for blood. Even their everyday food was known to be reeking raw meat and the rancid milk of mares. And it was known that, when a Mongol army ran out of those rations, it would unhesitatingly cast lots to choose every tenth man of its ranks to be slaughtered for food for the others. It was known that every Mongol warrior wore leather armor only on his breast, not his back; so that, if he ever did feel cowardice, he could not turn and run from an opponent. It was known that the Mongols polished their leather armor with grease, and they procured that grease by boiling down their human victims. All those things were known in Venice, and were repeated and retold, in hushed voices of horror, and some of those things were even true.I was just five years old when my father went away, but I could share the universal dread of those savages from the East, for I was already familiar with the spoken threat: "The Mongols will get you! The orda will get you!" I had heard that all through my childhood, and so had every other little boy whenever he required admonishment. "The orda will get you if you do not eat up all your supper. If you do not go straight to bed. If you do not cease your noise." The orda was wielded by mothers and governesses, in those times, as they had earlier threatened their misbehaving children with "The orco will get you!"The orco is the demon giant that mothers and nursemaids have forever kept on call, so it was no strain for them to substitute the wordorda: the horde. And the Mongol horde was assuredly the more real and believable monster; the women invoking it did not have to feign the fright in their voices. The fact that they even knew that word is evidence that they had reason to fear the orda as much as any child did. For it was the Mongols' own word, yurtu, originally meaning the great pavilioned tent of the chieftain of a Mongol encampment, and it was adopted, only slightly changed, into all the European languages, to mean what Europeans thought of when they thought of Mongols--a marching mob, a teeming mass, an irresistible swarm, a horde.But I did not much longer hear that threat from my mother. As soon as she decided that my father was dead and gone, she commenced to languish and dwindle and weaken. When I was seven years old, she died. I have only one recollection of her, from a few months before that. The last time she ventured outside our Casa Polo, before she took to her bed and never got up again, was to accompany me on the day I was enrolled in school. Indeed, although that day was in another century, nearly sixty years ago, I recall it quite clearly.At that time, our Ca' Polo was a small palazzo in the city's confino of San Felice. In the bright morning hour of mezza-terza, my mother and I came out the house door onto the cobbled street alongside the canal. Our old boatman, the black Nubian slave Michièl, was waiting with our batèlo moored to its striped pole, and the boat was freshly waxed for the occasion, gleaming in all its colors. My mother and I got into it and seated ourselves under the canopy. Also for the occasion, I was dressed in new and fine raiment: a tunic of brown Lucca silk, I remember, and hose soled with leather. So, as old Michièl rowed us down the narrow Rio San Felice, he kept exclaiming things like "Che zentilòmo!" and "Dassèno, xestu, Messer Marco?"--meaning "Quite the gentleman!" and "Truly, is that you, Master Marco?"--which unaccustomed admiration made me feel proud and uncomfortable. He did not desist until he turned the batèlo into the Grand Canal, where the heavy boat traffic required all his attention.That day was one of Venice's best sort of days. The sun was shining, but its light lay on the city in a manner more diffused than sharp-edged. There was no sea mist or land haze, for the sunlight was by no means diminished. Rather, the sun seemed to shine not in direct beams, but with a more subtle luminosity, the way candles glow when they are set in a many-crystaled chandelier. Anyone who knows Venice has known that light : as if pearls had been crushed and powdered--pearl-colored pearls and the pale pink ones and the pale blue--and that powder ground so fine that its particles hung in the air, not dimming the light but making it more lustrous yet soft at the same time. And the light came from other places than the sky alone. It was reflected from the canals' dancing waters, so it put dapples and spangles and roundels of that pearl-powder light bouncing about on all the walls of old wood and brick and stone, and softened their rough textures as well. That day had a gentling bloom on it like the bloom on a peach.Our boat slid under the Grand Canal's one bridge, the Ponte Rialto --the old, low, pontoon bridge with the swing-away center section; ithad not then been rebuilt as the arched drawbridge it is now. Then we passed the Erbarìa, the market where young men, after a night of wine, go strolling in the early morning to clear their heads with the fragrance of its flowers and herbs and fruits. Then we turned off the canal again into another narrow one. A little way up that, my mother and I debarked at the Campo San Todaro. Around that square are situated all the lower-grade schools of the city, and at that hour the open space seethed with boys of all ages, playing, running, chattering, wrestling, while they waited for the school day to begin.My mother presented me to the school maistro, presenting him also with the documents pertaining to my birth and to my registry in the Libro d'Oro. ("The Golden Book" is the popular name for the Register of Protocol in which the Republic keeps the records of all its Ene Aca families. ) Fra Varisto, a very stout and forbidding man in voluminous robes, appeared less than impressed by the documents. He looked at them and snorted, "Brate!" which is a not very polite word meaning a Slav or Dalmatian. My mother countered with a ladylike sniff, and murmured, "Veneziàn nato e spuà.""Venetian spawned and born, perhaps," rumbled the friar. "But Venetian bred, not yet. Not until he has endured proper schooling and the stiffening of school discipline."He took up a quill and rubbed the point of it on the shiny skin of his tonsure, I suppose to lubricate its nib, then dipped it in an inkwell and opened a tremendous book. "Date of Confirmation?" he inquired. "Of First Communion?"My mother told him and added, with some hauteur, that I had not, like most children, been allowed to forget my Catechism as soon as I had been confirmed, but could still say it and the Creed and the Commandments on demand, as facilely as I could say the Our Father. The maistro grunted, but made no additional notation in his big book. My mother then went on to ask some questions of her own: about the school's curriculum and its examinations and its rewards for achievement and its punishments for failure and ...All mothers take their sons to school for the first time with a considerable pride, I suppose, but also, I think, with an equal measure of wariness and even sadness, for they are relinquishing those sons to a mysterious realm they never can enter. Almost no female, unless she is destined for holy orders, ever gets the least bit of formal schooling. So her son, as soon as he learns just so much as to write his own name, has vaulted somewhere beyond her reach forever after.Fra Varisto patiently told my mother that I would be taught the proper use of my own language and of Trade French as well, that I would be taught to read and to write and to figure in numbers, that I would learn at least the rudiments of Latin from the Timen of Donadello, and the rudiments of history and cosmography from Callisthenes' Book of Alexander, and religion from Bible stories. But my mother persisted with so many other anxious questions that the friar finally said, in a voice mingling compassion and exasperation, "Dona e Madona, the boy is merely being enrolled in school. He is not taking the veil. We will immurehim merely during the daylight hours. You will still have him the rest of the time."She had me for the rest of her life, but that was not long. So thereafter I heard the threat that "the Mongols will get you if" only from Fra Varisto at school, and at home from old Zulià. This was a woman who really was a Slav, born in some back corner of Bohemia, and clearly of peasant stock, for she always walked like a washerwoman waddling with a full wash bucket dangling from either hand. She had been my mother's personal maid since before I was born. After my mother's death, Zulià took her place as my nurse and monitor, and took the courtesy title of Aunt. In assuming the task of raising me up to be a decent and responsible young man, Zia Zulià did not exert much strictness--apart from frequently invoking the orda--nor did she, I must confess, have much success in her self-appointed task.In part, this was because my namesake Uncle Marco had not come back to Venice after the disappearance of his two brothers. He had for too long made his home in Constantinople, and was comfortable there, although by this time the Latin Empire had succumbed to the Byzantine. Since my other uncle and my father had left the family business in the keeping of expert and trustworthy clerks, and the family palazzo in the keeping of similarly efficient domestics, Zio Marco left them so. Only the most weighty but least urgent matters were referred to him, by courier vessel, for his consideration and decision. Managed in that manner, both the Compagnia Polo and the Ca' Polo went on functioning as well as ever.The one Polo property that misfunctioned was myself. Being the last and sole male scion of the Polo line--the only one in Venice, anyway--I had to be tenderly preserved, and I knew it. Though I was not of an age to have any say in the management of either the business or the house (fortunately), neither was I answerable to any adult authority for my own actions. At home I demanded my own way, and I got it. Not Zia Zulià, nor the maggiordomo, old Attilio, nor any of the lesser servants dared to raise a hand against me, and seldom a voice. My Catechism I never again recited, and soon forgot all the responses. At school I began to shirk my lessons. When Fra Varisto despaired of wielding the Mongols and resorted to wielding a ferrule, I simply stayed away from school.It is a small wonder that I got as much formal education as I did. But I remained in school long enough to learn to read and write and do arithmetic and speak the Trade French of commerce, mainly because I knew I should need those abilities when I grew old enough to take over the family business. And I learned what history of the world, and what description of it, is supplied by The Book of Alexander. I absorbed all of that, mainly because the great Alexander's journeys of conquest had taken him eastward, and I could imagine my father and uncle having followed some of the same trails. But I saw little likelihood of my ever needing a knowledge of Latin, and it was when my school class had its collective nose forced into the boring rules and precepts of the Timen that I pointed my nose elsewhere.Though my seniors loudly lamented and predicted dire ends for me, I really do not think that my willfulness signified that I was an evil child. My chief besetting sin was curiosity, but of course that is a sin by our Western standards. Tradition insists that we behave in conformity with our neighbors and peers. The Holy Church demands that we believe and have faith, that we stifle any questions or opinions derived from our own reasoning. The Venetian mercantile philosophy decrees that the only palpable truths are those numerated on the bottommost ledger line where debits and credits are balanced.But something in my nature rebelled against the constraints accepted by all others of my age and class and situation. I wished to live a life beyond the rules and the ruled ledger lines and the lines written in the Missal. I was impatient and perhaps distrustful of received wisdom, those morsels of information and exhortation so neatly selected and prepared and served up like courses of a meal, for consumption and assimilation. I much preferred to make my own hunt for knowledge, even if I found it raw and unpalatable to chew and nauseating to swallow, as often I would do. My guardians and preceptors accused me of lazy avoidance of the hard work required to gain an education. They never realized that I had chosen to follow a far harder path, and would follow it--wherever it led--from that childhood time through all the years of my manhood.On the days when I stayed away from the school and could not go home, I h...
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