Messer Marco Polo by Donn Byrne (1921)

Messer Marco Polo is one of those special finds which every bibliophile lives for: a book which can be consumed in one sitting but is unique enough for you to impress fellow bibliophiles with, thus providing the opportunity to sound well-read with very minimal effort. The conversation may go like this:

‘Yeah, read this book the other afternoon, just chilling chez moi. [KEEP IT CASUAL – DON’T ADMIT THAT THE BOOK IS UNDER 100 PAGES LONG.] Called Messer Marco Polo. Basically it’s some 90 year-old Irish dude spinning a yarn to a group of young 20th century New Yorkers about Marco Polo’s 13th century experiences at the court of Kubla Khan. It’s mostly about how he falls in love with Khan’s daughter Golden Bells but there is also some fantastical stuff about his travels, like hissing dragons, and – ‘

‘Golden Balls?’

‘No that’s David Beckham circa 1998. Golden BELLS.’

‘Ah. Is that true though? The love story? Bit Hollywood if you ask me…’

‘No that bit’s made up, plus the dragon stuff, but [PREPARE TO REGURGITATE THE ONE PART OF ANTHONY LEJEUNE’S EXCELLENT INTRODUCTION THAT YOU HAVE COMMITTED TO MEMORY] much of the other detail comes from the narrative of Polo’s travels which was compiled by Rusticello using the notes Polo sent to him while a prisoner of war in Genoa…’

‘Oh right. Who came up with this crazy cultural mix up? It’s like when Aerosmith did that song with Run DMC.’

‘This Irish fella Donn Byrne. He died aged 39 in a car crash.’

‘Too young, like Tupac’

‘Yeah...[TRY TO BRING IT BACK TO THE LITERATURE. THIS IS YOUR MOMENT TO SHINE AND EVEN TUPAC CAN’T GET IN THE WAY OF THIS RIGHT NOW]. Ahem, yeah it is a crazy cultural mix up…like when Khan rejects Christianity and tells Polo he’s not worried about making it past the pearly gates, he does it all in this Irish brogue: “Well, maybe they won’t be so hard on one, my dear lad…maybe they’ll say: ‘It’s only old Kubla… He knows devil and all about religion, but… he had a soft spot for wee children and he was easy on horses. Sure, what’s the difference? Let him in!” ‘

‘Top bantz. Any other good bits?’

‘Oh [ROLL OUT A SENTENCE WHICH YOU THINK WILL SEAL THE DEAL IN TERMS OF MAKING YOU SOUND CLEVER] this delightful read has all the poetry of an Irishman after a few pints of Guinness. [PAUSE FOR REACTION. CARRY ON WHEN NO REACTION IS FORTHCOMING.] I like the bit about Spring, when he talks about how ‘nothing brings joy to the heart like the coming of Spring. The folk who do be blind all the rest of the year, their eyes do open then….There is something stirring in them that is stirring in the ground…’ but I REALLY  liked this wonderful description of a 13th century Venetian drinking establishment…let me read it to you…’

It was a dark, long room, very high, full of shadows between the flaming torches on the wall…At one end of it were the great barrels of liquor for the thirsty customers; black beer for the English and the Irish, grand, hairy stuff with great foam to it, and brown beer for the Germans; and there was white wine there for the French people, and red wine for the Italians, asquebaugh for the Scots, and rum from the sugar cane for such as had cold in their bones. There was all kind of drink there in the brass-bound barrels – drink would make you mad and drink would make you merry, drink would put heart in a timid man and drink would make fighting men peaceful as pigeons; and drink that would make you forget trouble – all in the brass-bound barrels at the end of the room.

‘Not all Irish people like Guinness you know. You shouldn’t stereotype.’


‘And it’s a bit sad to carry the book around on the off chance that we might discuss it and you might want to read me the pub bit.’


‘But that does sound like a good book. Really unusual. [IN YOUR MIND, YOU ARE PUNCHING THE AIR] How did you find it?’

[NOW FOR THE PIECE DE RESISTANCE. ETHICAL BOOK BUYING.] This mail order book company called  Bibliophile Books . They always have interesting things at great prices, and it feels less dirty than ordering off of Amazon.’

‘Sweet. Can we go to the pub and talk about Love Island now please? All that talk of brass-bound barrels has made me thirsty.’




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