AH, LUIGI, LUIGI! In the worn and wrinkled fustian of those old pages I hear your very voice again.
It had been many years since I last looked into our book, but when your letter came I fetched it out once more. I can still smile at it and admire it simultaneously. The admiration is for its having made me famous, however little I may deserve that fame, and the smile is for its having made me notorious. Now you say that you wish to write another work, an epic poem this time, again incorporating the adventures of Marco Polo—if I will grant that liberty—but attributing them to an invented protagonist.
I cast back in my memory to our first meeting, in the cellars of that Genoa palazzo where we prisoners of war were lodged. I remember how diffidently you approached me, and with what reticence you spoke:
“Messer Marco, I am Luigi Rustichello, late of Pisa, and I have been a captive here since long before you arrived. I have listened to you telling that hilariously ribald story of the Hindu with his
I inquired, “Are you weary of hearing it, Messere?”
And you said, “Not at all, Messere, but you will soon be weary of the telling. Many more persons will want to hear that tale, and all the other tales you have told, and any others which perhaps you have not told yet. Before you tire of the telling, or of the stories themselves, why do you not simply tell to
And so I did, and so you did, and so the multitudes have done. Though many other journeyers before me had written of their travels, none of those works ever enjoyed the immediate and continuing popularity of our
Perhaps, Luigi, it was because you chose to transcribe my words in French, the most widely known Western language. Or perhaps you made my stories better in the writing than I could do in the telling. At any rate, somewhat to my surprise, our book became much read and talked of and sought after. It was copied and recopied, and by now has been translated into every other language of Christendom, and of those versions, too, countless copies have been taken and circulated.
But none of them tells the singular story of the anguished Hindu and his rape of a rock.
When I sat in that clammy Genoa prison, recounting my reminiscences, and you sat putting them into proper words, we decided that they would be told in
Further, we determined to leave out of the book anything which might strain the credence of any stay-at-home reader. I recall that we even debated before we included my encounters with the stone that burns and the fabric that will not. Thus many of the most marvelous incidents of my travels were, so to speak, abandoned by the wayside of my wanderings. We left out the unbelievable and the bawdy and the scandalous. But now, you tell me, you want to mend those gaps—though still without hazarding my good name.
So your new protagonist will be called Monsieur Bauduin, not Messer Marco, and he will hail from Cherbourg, not Venice. But in all else he will be me. He will experience, enjoy, endure all that I did—
Yes, I meant to go again sometime. But when I was freed from Genoa and returned to Venice, the family business demanded my attention, and so I hesitated to depart. And then I met Donata, and she became my wife. So I hesitated again a while, and then there was a daughter. Naturally that gave me cause to hesitate, and there came a second daughter, and then there were three. So, for one reason and another, I kept on hesitating, and suddenly one day I was old.
Old! It is inconceivable! When I look into our book, Luigi, I see myself there a boy, and then a youth, and then in my manhood, and even at the book’s very end I am still a stalwart. But when I look into a glass, I see there an aged stranger, sapped and sagged and blemished and enfeebled by the corroding rusts of five and sixty years. I murmur,
I never claimed to have been the first man to travel from the West into the far East, and you did not put any such boast into our book. Nevertheless, that seems to have been the impression produced upon most of its readers—or those readers living elsewhere than Venice, where no such illusion obtains. After all, my own Venetian father and uncle had gone to and returned from the East before they retraced their journey and that time took me with them. Also, in the East itself I met many other Westerners, of all nations from England to Hungary, who had arrived there before me, and some of whom stayed there longer than I did.