The Role of Asides in Authenticating the Narrative
The narrative of Marco Polo's travels is laden with fantastical, bewildering stories, but it is so carefully crafted, that it testifies for its own authenticity.
In his New York Times article, "Once Upon a Time in China,"
Bruce Barcott dubs Rustichello Marco Polo's "terrific ghostwriter," and indeed he was terrific in his ability to convey a captivating story that was also believable.
There are two narrators in this masterpiece: the first person "traveler" persona and the omniscient third person who clearly asserts himself as a colleague of Marco's. Both of these narrators are derived from a combination of Marco Polo's memories and Rustichello's words.
Being that there were two collaborators on this narrative, there could have easily been two voices--one reflecting that of Marco Polo and the other that of Rustichello--but that would have curtailed the effect. Instead, the brilliant Rustichello wove Marco Polo's vision into a first person narrator that recorded the world as he saw it.
This first person narrator persona never abandons his audience. Rustichello was careful to insert pronouns often enough to remind the reader that he is not alone on this literary adventure. For example, in the chapter, "Concerning the Kaan's Palace of Chagannor," he describes the splendor of the palace. He writes, "there are five different kinds of cranes found in those tracts, as I shall tell you."
Instead of merely conjuring up a world for the reader to envision on his own, the text offers a helping hand that serves as an usher through the visualization process. Those five simple words, "as I shall tell you," extend a welcoming gesture towards the audience that create a personable, inviting tone.
In the same spirit of narration, each chapter begins and ends with an introduction and conclusion, always keeping the audience aware of what is to come and continuing the gentle guidance through the escapades.
In addition to the simple comments that orient the reader, the first person narrator also has asides such as this one: "but I must now tell you a strange thing that hitherto I have forgotten to mention," from the chapter entitled, "Of the City of Chandu, and the Kaan's Palace There."
This tale was written with Marco Polo's notes on hand, and there was plenty of opportunity to edit and rearrange the text. It is highly unlikely that Marco Polo and Rustichello "forgot" to mention information and realized their mistakes later on. It is also quite obvious that this "omission" and subsequent confession were intentionally placed where they were to pique interest in the topic to come and to give the first person narrator humanly qualities. Such asides remind the reader that the text is not a dead manuscript filled with words, but rather a living story that is retold every time it is read.
The first person narrator has the dominant voice in the story, but the third person omniscient narrator also plays a crucial role. He serves as a witness to the truth of the story and his brief appearances serve to authenticate the narrative.
At the conclusion of the chapter regarding the "How the Three Kings Returned to their Own Country," the text states, "such then was the story told by the people of that Castle to Messer Marco Polo; they declared to him for a truth that such was their history." Here, there are several levels of narration and with that several layers of self-authentication.
There is the first level at which these people have told Marco Polo their story and guaranteed its truth. Then, it is assumed that Marco Polo records the story and relays it later on for it to be included in the travel narrative at which point the voice of the writer uses his authority to confirm the truth of the story.
It is impossible to tell "the whole truth" or the "objective truth," especially in a travel narrative where there is so much extravagant material with which to impress a hungry audience. But, there is some merit to the effort that Marco Polo and his ghost writer made to self-authenticate their work. While it is easy to say, "if they had to tell us that they were being honest, they probably weren't," we cannot deny that the charismatic narrative had a strong pull inviting us to believe the story against our "better judgment." Travel is magical, so why not let the stories be too?