One of the delights of the discount book racks is that you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to find. Often enough there’s nothing interesting: aged thrillers, sad fantasy epics, lesbian fiction (should I be focusing only on straight male fiction?), chick-lit. Nothing, that is to say, to detain a thoughtful person. And it was on this assumption that, passing near one of my usual haunts, I thought: “No point.” And I was about to to move on in the direction of the supermarket when another voice said: “Go on. Just have a look!” Thank God I did. I thought at first it was another fantasy epic. but I picked it up anyway, which is how I came to have in my hand one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time.
The City of Light by Jacob D’Ancona, edited and translated by David Selbourne. Or so said the cover. This is (or if you prefer ‘purports to be’ ) the account of a 13th century Italian rabbi who travelled to China for the purpose of trade and to repair his family’s fortunes. He travelled there a few years before Marco Polo.
This is an extraordinarily detailed account of his travels out to the city of Zaitun (now considered to have been Quangzhou (Not Guangzhou which is of course the city formerly known as Canton) where he found himself involved in the debates and intellectual ferment stimulated by the impending arrival of the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan.
Apart from the early travels – in which we learn that there are well established and thriving Jewish communities all along the trade route – including India – the book has a large section that transcribes seemingly verbatim a number of debates. And the interesting thing is how modern these debates sound. Should they defend themselves against the Mongols or open their gates and welcome the attacking armies, thereby hoping to conciliate them and avoid massacres; Should there be unfettered freedom to pursue one’s own interests, or is there a need for taxation, a sanitation system, law and order, someone to help the needy – and so on. These sound like the right-wing Tories and bankers versus the Lib-Dems. As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I have seen the weakness of handing government over to the merchant class – no principles, no back bone – sleazy deal-making is the order of the day.
As I read the book the suspicion did indeed arise in me that this was ‘too good’ to be true – and then, reading the back cover (I usually don’t pay much attention to these blurbs) I saw that I was not alone. “If it is genuine…” says Paul Theroux; “If genuine…” says the Daily Telegraph. No-one wants to be caught praising a book that turns out to be a fraud.
Well, why not just analyse the original manuscript. Surely that will settle the matter. Ahah! Here is the crux of the issue. Mr Selbourne tells the story that he was introduced to the manuscript by an Italian Jewish family who had had it in their possession for centuries. He was allowed to read it and translate it – and indeed publish his translation on one condition: that he did not reveal where the manuscript was nor who owned it.
Well, that has scam written all over it. And yet… Old Italian families and institutions – the libraries of the Vatican spring to mind – must have documents and parchments going back not just centuries but perhaps millennia. It is not entirely incredible. It is indeed perfectly possible.
So what then about the internal evidence. As I read I teetered on the fence. It was really very very good – and there was nothing that gave the game away. So, if we say there was no manuscript and that Mr Selbourne invented this (a suggestion that he vehemently denies – and has a postscript arguing against the many critics who have said this is not an authentic document) we would have to say that he would have to be an expert in medieval Italian, medieval Hebrew, Jewish religious practices and behaviours, Chinese politics and philosophical thought, medieval European nomenclature for things Arabic, Indian and Chinese and a number of other esoteric subjects. He would also have to be a novelist who eschews modern novelistic conventions and habits. In short, if this is a scam it is a brilliant scam.
However you look at it, this book is a work of strange genius, which must be as if true (in order not to be exposed as a fraud) if it is not actually true.
And it has been a delight (though admittedly a slightly tiresome delight when we get bogged down in the debates) – and while these may seem remarkable for the fact that someone with no Chinese is able to record these in such detail (he did have an educated Chinese translator at hand), it would be no less remarkable to invent such debates – though interestingly Mr Selbourne (who is not known to be a novelist) has written widely on political matters so these discussions are very much to his taste – and the extensive notes show that Mr Selbourne has read very, very widely around the subject. The truth is, if anyone could have faked this convincingly, it would have been Mr Selbourne – nevertheless I am inclined to take his side and say that I accept them as being true. If he faked them he did a bloody good job – good enough to get away with it. Definitely 5 stars*****