Travels in the Land of Serpents and Pearls by Marco Polo
In this selection from Marco Polo's famous travel book, the intrepid Venetian describes the customs of India, recounts the story of the king who died eighty-four times and explains how to retrieve diamonds from snake-infested caves.
Marco Polo's descriptions of India are utter madness; serpents guarding diamonds, kings with 30,000 wives, a prince taking to isolation after seeing an infirm old man, and everyone an idolater. They read like tales of fantasy, but with each of them comes a shred of realism, something we know to be true, and this lends an element of trust to his words, despite his constant exaggerations.
My favourite claim of his was that the people he encountered skinned beasts to make leather. He lists the animals, including our favourite common mammal: the unicorn. This really hammered home for me how naive we were in those days, and how Polo's interpretations of India seem ridiculous now that we live in such an educated world. Could it be, perhaps, that Polo had simply never seen a rhinoceros?
He gives no personal opinion on the customs he experiences, no praise or vilification for the way these people live their lives. Although his prose is repetitive and stark with facts, all that shines through is his wonder at this new world.
A wee bit bland, and undoubtedly forgettable, it's a worthwhile read on Polo's experience in India in the 13th century.