When Marco Polo returned from the East there had been no World War. His story was not muffled by the thunder of national cataclysms. He set the West by the ears, and opened new paths of activity and progress to the existing civilization. Dr. Ferdinand Ossendowski, author of "Beasts, Men and Gods", is another Polo if ever there was one; but unfortunately in the whirling events of today his startling epic is too apt to be passed over, or classified as just "another of those war books".
It is far from being that. In all the "war books" I have read, ranging from Ian Hay through Donald Hankey to Ambassador Page, I have come across none that possessed the inherent power and strength and fascination of this strange tale. Dr. Ossendowski, a Polish professor formerly holding an important official scientific position in Russia, was caught by the Revolution: fied in winter Eastward through Siberia; struck South across Inner and Outer Mongolia and into Thibet; retraced his steps, skirted--the Desert of Gobi, and finally reached Urga, the city of the Living Buddha. From Urga, which was also serving at the time as headquarters for Baron Ungern's campaign to stir up the ancient race of Jenghis Khan against the Bolsheviki, he made his way through Manchuria and thence to Peking and safety. It is the wildest sort of an Odyssey--the more powerful because of the deadly earnestness and precision with which it is told, and because of the fact that it is not half legend, but actual truth.
Of the war itself as we know it from the West there is very little which is a relief. The author loses no time in political theorizing or in speculating as to the future of Russia, but steps quickly into the boundless forests of the Yenisei. From there on, all that we hear of the war or the Revolution comes as an echo from the Northwest, or from the months of inn-keepers, shepherds, Lamas, or officers of "Red" of "White" detachments. Once, it is true the Yenisei River, in its springy floods brings a sight that neither author nor readers will ever forget: "Watching this glorious withdrawal of the ice. I was filled with terror and revolt at seeing the awful spoils which the Yenisei bore away in this annual retreat. These were the bodies of the executed counter-revolutionaries . . . Hundreds of these bodies with heads and hands cut off, with mutilated faces and bodies half burned, with broken skulls, floated and mingled with the blocks of ice, looking for their graves: or, turning in the furious whirlpools among the jagged blocks, they were ground and torn to pieces into shapeless masses, which the river, nauseated with its task, vomited out upon the islands and projecting sand-bars. . . . In on place at a turn of the river I saw a great heap of horses, which had been cast up by the ice and current, in number not less than three hundred.
"A verst below there I was sickened beyond endurance by the discovery of a grove of willows along the bank which had raked from the polluted stream and held in their finger-like drooping branches human bodies in all shapes and attitudes with a semblance of naturalness . . ." Perhaps the reason why the author makes no very numerous comments upon Bolshevism is that such scenes speak for themselves.
When he progresses farther, however, over the roads and mountains traversed by the great Khans Jenghis and Kublai, and by the mereliess Tamerlane-Temur, he becomes not so much the anti-revolutionist as the spokesman and interpreter of dying Mongolia. Himself a Pole, with just enough of the East in him to make him sympathetic with its mysteries and legends, and enough of the West to enable him to read those mysteries and legends, and enough of the West to enable him to read those mysteries in a cold white light, he has drawn a picture that cannot be set down in a few words. He begins these chapters with a memorable overture: . . . I came to know the calm, good and honest Mongolian people; I read their souls, saw their sufferings and hopes; I witnessed the whole horror of their oppression and fear before the face of Mystery, there where Mystery pervades all life. I watched the rivers during the severe cold break with a rumbling rear their chains of ice: saw lakes cast up on their shores the bones of human beings: heard unknown wild voices in the mountain ravines: made out the fires over miry swamps of the will o'-the-wisps: witnessed burning lakes: gazed upward to mountains whose peaks could not be scaled: came across great balls of writhing snakes in the ditches in winter: met with streams which are eternally frozen, rocks like petrified caravans of camels, horsemen and carts; and over all saw the barren mountains whose folds looked like the mantle of Setan, which the glow of the evening sun drenched with blood". This is Mongolia the Mongolia whose ancestors broke their chests against the iron lances of the Western knights: the Mongolia which has only recently been stirred again by Baron Ungern, the "Incarnated God of War": the Mongolia whose books and priests and legends speak of the day when the swastika of Jenghis Khan will be carried Westward, and all of Europe will fall under "the last march of the Mongols". "Asta is awakened and her sons utter bold words."
In all his troubles, his own skirmishes with the "Reds"--he was twice wounded--his own visits to "yurtas", where the blood of the last murdered victim had not yet sunk into the ground, his own wanderings by horse, cart, camel, and on foot, Dr. Ossendowski has not forgotten to look about him and learn. The last section of the book, in which he tells of the fabled "King of the World", and sets forth Buddhistic prophecies and miracles, is undoubtedly a more than unique thing. Strangest of all--the passage that causes the Christian reader to gasp as he suddenly and without warning runs his eye over it--is the first recorded appearance of the "King of the World". A Buddhist legend, a myth if you will; this King appeared in India and Siam over two thousand years ago. And "he blessed the people with a golden apple with the figure of a Lamb above it. The blind received their sight, the dumb spoke, the deaf heard, the crippled freely moved and the dead arose, wherever the eyes of the King of the World rested"! This same King also appeared at a monastery in Mongolia in 1890, and prophesied the World War, the tall of eight great kings, and the Revolution. . . . You may believe this or not. But one thing is certain: the East has never lived so clearly before modern eyes. The book, once opened, cannot be closed. It has caught and held and given triumphant expression to that power that, even today, can compel the spirit of man to "ride in triumph through Persepolis.