Posted by Claire.
Does Kubilai Khan live for over-the-top affluence, or does Marco Polo have a knack for hyperbole? Take your pick, because something about the figures in this week’s reading seems skewed. Perhaps Khan does feast with 6,000 every night and then have his pick of over 20,000 prostitutes, but I’m more inclined to believe that Polo might be stretching the facts. And, if Polo fibs the numbers in this instance, what is to say that the whole recount isn’t doused in exaggeration? With one of Polo’s main tools throughout book being embellishment, the document can’t possibly be credible as a travel resource or trade manuel and must, in fact, have another primary purpose.
Take for example the description of the Khan’s city, and the fact that “every gateway must be guarded by 1,000 men.” (131) All right, go grab 999 of your closest friends and stand by a door. Feeling important yet? Probably not, after all that is 12 percent of the undergraduate population of Notre Dame.* How big is this gate, anyway? You tell me, overkill or exaggeration? Or how about “[Polo assuring us] for a fact that… the Great Khan receives gifts of more than 100,000 white horses… [and] elephants, fully 5,000 in number”? (139) That’s quite a herd. About the population of South Bend, actually.** Where is he keeping all those? One more example, the “two brothers [bound] by covenant to provide the Great Khan’s court every day beginning in October and continuing to the end of March, with a thousand heads of game.” (143) That’s 182,000 heads of game. One angus cow has 450 pounds of meat.*** One Big Mac is eight ounces. You do the math. Overkill or exaggeration?
I lean toward exaggeration on Polo’s part. Yes, Kubilai Khan does have an empire at his disposal, but these numbers are almost unfeasible. Why wouldn’t Polo stretch the truth? Really, who could call him a liar? But, if he dramatizes here, can we take any of his descriptions as truth? In class we agreed with the original title, but perhaps the French gave a more apt one with The Book of the Wonders of the World. If we admit that mountains don’t actually move, or that pillars can’t stand without a base, how do we trust the other facts within the book? With so many instances of tall tales and exaggeration, how does Polo retain credibility?
But, look at the writing style. The author seems certain; Polo recounts with sureness. He says, “You must know” and “Now let me tell you something.” (149,155) So, is Polo convinced? Does he believe we will believe him? Does he believe himself? Let’s ask this, why does he include such tales amid what seem to be legitimate facts about travel, crops, and commerce?
My answer? Marco Polo is a traveler, not a researcher, not an economist. He marvels at the marvelous, dives into local lore and superstition, and remembers the most captivating of both. Now and then, some of these stories, which have left an obvious impression on him, seem necessary to relate his travels. These stories literally became part of the place for Polo. If you asked him, he might say they became descriptors themselves. And, to hear these stories is to know a facet of a place in the same way that relating what crops they trade there relays importance.
Polo, in the Prologue, invites “emperors and kings, dukes and marquises, counts, knights, and townsfolk, and all people who wish to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world” to read his book. (33) Peculiarities? Not information? Yes, stories about an assassin’s garden are peculiar. Therefore, this isn’t a guidebook. It’s a recount, a picture of the world. You might say that this wouldn’t be profitable for Polo. You don’t usually plan on selling the pictures you take, but you still take them, don’t you? The Epilogue explains it this way, “we have not spoken to you of the Black Sea or the provinces that lie around it… because it seems .. it would be tedious to recount… what is daily recounted by others.” (344)
So, overkill or exaggeration? Fact or hyperbole? Does it even matter? Polo shows us a picture. If filled with exaggeration, we wouldn’t know. All we see is a new and strange place.
*according to www.nd.edu/aboutnd/profile/students
**according to www.census.gov
***according to www.butcher-packer.com