Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

Donn Byrne called himself “the last of the Irish storytellers.” His adversaries, of whom he had many, called him a synthetic “professional Irishman.” There is truth in both views. Byrne was indeed Irish by parentage, upbringing, and sentiment, although he was born during a parental visit to Brooklyn. Well-educated in Dublin and abroad, he first sought adventure in South America, dreaming that he might become famous as a cowboy poet; but soon he moved to New York.

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Although critically praised, his first works sold poorly, and for some years he scraped for a living, first in a garage and then on a series of newspapers; he finally put his considerable erudition to work as a lexicographer. Fiercely combative for the Orange cause, he was in constant conflict with the Sinn Fein sympathizers in New York, and he was involved with equal passion in the many literary disputes of the time.

MESSER MARCO POLO brought the author fame and some fortune in 1920, but his reckless generosity and extravagance soon forced him to flee his creditors. He traveled widely during his last years and continued to write prolifically. On one night in 1928, he won enough money at a casino in Cannes to buy a castle in Cork, but he was killed in an automobile accident shortly after his return to Ireland.

There may well have been elements of the synthetic in Byrne’s lifelong performance as a wild Irish “boyo,” but in regard to his writing, there is no problem: art is synthetic by definition, and the only relevant question is whether it works. MESSER MARCO POLO works extremely well. The narrator’s Irish allusions, locutions and—most poignantly—his rhythms transform a thin tale into a romantic fantasy that evokes the glamor of virtually every exotic name or place from Venice to Peking with remarkable wit and economy. Byrne unerringly strikes the appropriate tones of humor and pathos throughout his novel. Its stylistic beauty and its exquisite folk descriptions of setting and character make this one of the best modern romances.

A mixture of three elements gives this simple tale a unique flavor. A modern Irishman tells the adventures of a Christian Italian in pagan China. Irish mysticism mingles with the mystery of the East to produce a romantic and tragic love story based upon the visit of Marco Polo to the court of Kubla Khan. The author succeeds in bringing together, in one framework, folktale, history, and imagination. His simple narrative style is of a kind very rarely found among modern authors; it suggests the fireside stories and poems of the past that passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.

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