Marco Polo reminted

Laurence Bergreen strips away the myths of Marco Polo to let us see the great Venetian traveller afresh. Kevin Rushby is delighted

Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

by Laurence Bergreen
448pp, Quercus, 19.99

Marco Polo, Europe's greatest ever traveller, suffered badly for what cynics assumed were his outlandish flights of fancy: coal, paper money, asbestos, urban planning, religious toleration? He's making it up! Imagine him in 1295, trying to convince a sceptical Venetian public that Kublai Khan took his dinner with 40,000 guests and had his servants veiled with silk lest they breathe on his majesty's broth. No wonder, when he returned from 24 years on the road, the children of Venice are reputed to have stalked after him, goading: "Tell us another lie . . . " And so Polo was quickly consigned to that part of our cultural heritage marked "medieval fantasy/travel" - a few notches above Sir John Mandeville, who never went further than St Albans. Even as recently as 1995, Frances Wood argued that Polo may not have made it beyond the Bosphorus.

Trouble was, as Laurence Bergreen points out in this enthralling revivification of the man, the Venetian merchant's memoirs did feature shameless embellishments and untruths. But he was no liar, just a bombastic braggart, dictating his recollections to a man who could spin a tale, Rustichello of Pisa, a prolific writer of popular Arthurian romances. The pair of them had ended up sharing a rather comfortable cell in a Genoese prison some three years after Polo's return. Now Bergreen has unpicked the Pisan's contributions and allowed the true Marco Polo to emerge. In doing this he has zapped a million volts through the tired old corpse of Polo's reputation, and - astonishingly - the traveller bursts from the stuffy liar and comes alive.

He struts before us: clever, opinionated, resourceful, passionate and sexual, the sort of travelling companion one simultaneously dreads and cherishes: "When I was an ambassador at the court of Kublai Khan . . ." The one who has always been further, and seen more: "My God, you should see the women there . . ." More importantly, however, Bergreen shows how Polo came to be a man determined to overturn a number of Christendom's most fervently held prejudices. He was that dusty backpacker in the pub corner loudly informing everyone that he's seen the Chinese and they are not rapacious monsters intent on devouring all the world's resources. In Polo's case, it was chiefly that the Mongols were not what everyone thought them to be - rapacious, bloodthirsty monsters intent on devouring all the world - but deeply civilised and admirable human beings.

Polo had gone east with his father and uncle in 1271. These two were in many respects the greater travellers, having already completed the daunting journey to the Great Khan's court. Their previous experience and expertise certainly overshadowed the ambitious novice, Marco. And perhaps appropriately, while recounting his adventures on the journey, Marco takes his time to appear. It is almost as if Rustichello, the seasoned writer, manages to stifle Marco's natural story-telling in these early and uncertain passages, inserting his own flawed notions. Curiously Bergreen's own writing also stutters and falters a bit in the early passages. I even began to wonder whether I might abandon him in Yunnan, accidentally push him off the bridge into the Yangtse - he slipped! - but then Marco jumped up and grabbed the pen.

It was the lands of Tangut and Hami that did it. Right on the cusp of entering China, the Venetian suddenly was in a place where the people lived their lives with the kind of wild brio that he could not resist. Neither, Bergreen guesses, could he resist the women of Hami - "beautiful and vivacious and always ready to oblige". Even their religion, Buddhism, seemed less objectionable than before. It was the beginning of a personal evolution from sneering European merchant to observant and sympathetic traveller. When he reaches the court of Kublai Khan he is ready to dive headfirst into all the opportunities that the emperor puts before him. Off he goes through the newly conquered realms, visiting Yunnan and points south. Perhaps prompted by his amanuensis, he recollects with affection the fun-loving ways of the City of Heaven, Hang Zhou. Likewise Bergreen is no slouch when it comes to chucking in a little spice, quoting at length the fascinating contortions described in contemporary Chinese "sex primers".

As our hero goes along, proofs mount up to refute for ever the doubters who said he never went to China at all. Sadly Chinese records naming an imperial functionary called Po-lo proved to be a historical cul-de-sac, but the evidence remains pretty conclusive. Bergreen persuasively dismisses age-old queries: for example, why didn't Marco mention printing? Probably because, as a merchant, he was more interested in money and economics. Hence he saw the implications and advantages of paper currency, something unknown in Europe at the time. He also saw, and wrote about, the court of Kublai Khan like no one else did. And with that came a growing sensitivity to Mongol life and manners. He admired them enormously. Their men were the ultimate brave warriors; their women the most sturdy and resourceful. Flying in the face of received wisdom in Europe, Polo saw the Mongols as worthy overlords of what was the greatest empire ever seen.

Having made themselves comfortable and well-liked at the Mongol court for many years, the three Polos eventually hoped to sew whatever gemstones they had acquired into their coats and head home. By this time, however, Kublai Khan was an ageing despot with an unsteady grip on power. He could not afford to have anyone appear to desert him. At length a face-saving formula was found: the Venetians could accompany a Mongol princess who had been betrothed to the ruler of Argon, a Levantine kingdom at the very limits of the Great Khan's political reach. The Polos set out, clutching their passport, a golden tablet from Kublai Khan, but as they approached Europe its power waned. Reaching Trebizond they were robbed and when they finally set foot in Venice they had been reduced to scruffily exotic aliens - even their own families refused to recognise them. Slowly though, normality asserted itself. They were listened to, lauded and, in the end, lampooned.

Bergreen is endlessly generous to Polo, letting past all sorts of wayward claims, such as that the elephants of Zanzibar do it in the missionary position. But I enjoyed the partisanship. During Polo's final years, Bergreen spots his decline from expansive Oriental traveller to crabby stop-in. Then, once our hero is gone, he takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the literature, showing how Polo's boastfulness, Rustichello's conceits and all the weighty prejudice of later editors ended up mutilating the essential tale. What has emerged here, however, is a dazzling portrait of a remarkable man, a portrait that restores Marco Polo to his rightful place in the pantheon, a task that has been long overdue.