L.S. Klepp
September 18, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Myself and Marco Polo: A Novel of Changes

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
Paul Griffiths
publisher
Random House
genre
Fiction

We gave it a B+

This is the first novel by Paul Griffiths, a music critic for The Times of London, and it’s an enchanting one, especially when you consider that it isn’t even a novel. But is there such a thing as a ”novel”? Griffiths was hoping you’d ask while reading through his elegant procession of fables, quibbles, parables, paradoxes, and parodies, most of them doing their best to radiate the serenely inscrutable wisdom of the Far East. The book doesn’t exactly ignore the question and as a result it sometimes gets no farther East than the Ivy League departments where every few weeks the traditional novel is ceremoniously sentenced to death. But in spite of the metafictional blight around the edges, the book — oh, all right, novel — survives with sense of humor intact.

As a whimsical meditation on the Italian merchant and his wonder-filled account of 13th-century China, Myself and Marco Polo resembles Julian Barnes’ much-acclaimed collage Flaubert’s Parrot, except that it’s less original and more philosophically imaginative. It follows in the Marco Polo — following footsteps of the late Italo Calvino, to whom it pays homage and whose lucid cryptic masterpiece, Invisible Cities, is clearly a model. So are Zen riddles, the playfully paradoxical anecdotes of the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, and the ironic metaphysical fables of Jorge Luis Borges. I particularly liked a fable of an emperor who finds that he can reverse time, reliving his past experiences backward and forward without being able to change them. It becomes a haunting meditation on what matters in life and how little of it is chosen. This isn’t a book to keep you up till 3 a.m., tensely turning pages; it is to be sampled and savored, like a delicate Chinese tea accompanied by a feathery Italian pastry. B+

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