Small Talk: A New Reading of Marco Polo’s Il milione
By Gang Zhou
MLN, Vol.124 (2009)
Introduction: In his eloquently written book Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, John Larner examines various interpretations of Marco Polo’s book, Le Divisament Dou Monde (“The Description of the World,” also called Il milione by Marco Polo’s contemporaries), in terms of different genres in the Western medieval context: travel writing, the merchant’s handbook, books of marvels, etc. Dissatisfied with these interpretations of the book’s genre, Larner states, “to write the Book, that is to say, a new genre of western literature had to be created”. Taking Larner’s discussion as the point of departure, I argue in this essay that, while Marco Polo’s book pushes the limits of all these medieval Western genres, it demands an alternative perspective that reads “the Book” in light of the Chinese narrative tradition. A close reading of the work shall demonstrate that it bears strong similarities to small talk, a genre of minor quasi-historic work in the Chinese narrative tradition.
The term “small talk” (xiaoshuo) first appeared in the Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese philosophical work, to signify insignificant topics and ideas. As a literary genre, small talk was first defined by Ban Gu (32–92 ce) in the Hanshu yiwenzhi (“treatise on the arts and writing” in the Han Dynasty History) as “the gossip of the street.” The prototype of a small talk writer was a minor officer, who as part of his official role collected the gossip on the street, and in retelling it gained prestige as a storyteller. The figure of Marco Polo as represented in his book was also someone who had gained his training and reputation as a storyteller during his service in Kublai’s court. It is perhaps not that surprising that we find the narrative pattern reflected in Il milione conforms nicely to the expectations of the Chinese genre of small talk.
The enigma of Marco Polo’s life, his journey to Asia as well as the writing of his book, has continued to provoke debate even in recent years. Most Marco Polo scholars, however, would agree that Marco Polo was born in Venice around 1254. When he left his homeland, together with his father Nicolo Polo and uncle Maffeo Polo to travelto the Far East, he was almost seventeen. They spent three years traveling to China, where Marco Polo served in Kublai’s court for seventeen years, while traveling extensively in different parts of China and beyond. When the Polos finally returned to Venice in 1295, Marco Polo was forty-one, having spent most of his life between cultures and among foreigners. Around 1298, Marco Polo was taken prisoner, most probably during a protracted war between Venice and Genoa, and happened to share a cell with Rustichello of Pisa, a professional Arthurian romancer. Together, these two produced Marco Polo’s book, The Description of the World.