These three authors have little in common, as you know, except for one important thing – they have written the last three books I have read.
I read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Daniel Silva’s The Secret Servant on our trip to Turkey, and, inspired by the trip, read The Travels of Marco Polo upon our return.
Let me work backwards:
I had read Cry the Beloved Country, written in 1944, when I was in high school or college. I thought it extraordinary. As you may be aware, Cry the Beloved Country deals with South Africa, white and black. Its hero (and hero is the right word) is an aging black minister living in a rural valley hard hit by drought and poverty. His brother, his sister and his son have disappeared in Johannesburg, where more and more blacks are going to try to earn a living. They have very different experiences. His sister becomes a prostitute, his son (who in another life would also be a hero) gets involved with the wrong crowd and murders (out of fear) a white civil rights worker (whose wealthy father lives not to far from our hero, the minister), and his brother becomes a leading black politician. It is a beautiful book, a moral book, and paints a picture of a sad, sad society. And this was South Africa in 1944, before the formal adoption of apartheid, when segregation was economic more than anything else, and when elements of the black population still harbored some hope. The book, written in a simple but evocative style, was as good in 2008, as it was 40+ years ago.
Then, The Secret Servant. I was so high on Daniel Silva’s The Unlikely Spy that I was really looking forward to The Secret Servant on the 10 hour flight from Istanbul. Well, I was over optimistic. This book, dealing with Israeli spies and Islamist cells, and flitting across Europe and the Middle East, was so-so, and oh-so forgettable. If you asked me to relate the plot to you today, I would have a hard time. I remember there was an Israeli agent who wanted to retire, but who wound up looking for the kidnapped daughter of the American ambassador to Britain, etc., etc., etc.
Then, there’s Marco Polo. What a strange book. You probably know the basic story. Polo, son and nephew of Venetian traders wound up spending almost thirty years in lands controlled by Kublai Khan, lands where few Europeans (and in some cases no Europeans) had previously traveled. Winding up in prison in Genoa (we don’t know why) years later, he penned his travels (with the help of a romance writer-friend). The resulting book became a big hit (over 700 years ago!!!) and has been in print ever since. Like other manuscripts of this age, it has gone through multiple translations and editions, and it is difficult to determine what part of it is original to Polo, what was added by his writer-friend, and what was added later.
Putting this aside, two things are striking. First, the book is enormously accurate with regard to the geography and politics of his travels, which start in Constantinople, and wend through today’s Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Japan and Russia. Secondly, the book is less accurate with regard to some of the phantasmagoric descriptions of the people, the societies, and in some cases the animal and plant life. In addition, there is much hyperbole, when Polo speaks of ports with tens of thousands of ships, one after another.
In some ways, things don’t change. The relationship between Moslems and Christians, for instance. Or from the description of carpet making and silk weaving in Turkey. Or that Turkey is filled with Turks, Greeks and Armenians, each with their own talents and characteristics.
Do I recommend Cry the Beloved Country? Absolutely.
Do I recommend The Travels of Marco Polo? Absolutely.
Do I recommend The Secret Servant? Nope.