In 1271, four years before Marco Polo arrived in China, a Jewish-Italian merchant named Jacob d’Antona arrived first. He wrote an account of what he found there, and it survived on 280 loose leaves of paper wrapped in silk. He describes in vivid detail his adventures in the city of Zaitun (today’s Quanzhou). The manuscript belongs to an anonymous Italian who lets no one see it but David Selbourne, “an articulate former college lecturer” who translated it into English and added explanatory notes.
After its British release by Little, Brown in October 1997, scholars attacked the book as the latest in a long list of literary hoaxes, citing lack of provenance and a variety of errors and other clues. Philippa Harrison, chief executive of the publisher, stood firmly behind the book but suspended its release in the U.S.
Selbourne’s reaction to forgery charges is uncannily like Walter Hooper’s. He says, “Time and time again the quibbles these critics raise reveal how shallow their knowledge really is. The fact that these people are biting and stinging like hornets is par for the course in academia…. I’m regarded as a crude interloper who has been given access to something other people would have preferred to have for themselves.”
Hornets? In 1978 Owen Barfield launched Walter Hooper’s defense by calling the charges “a mass of inaccurate statements, ingenious speculations, and waspish innuendo.” Hooper and his defenders have claimed for twenty years that professional jealousy is behind the questions he does not choose to answer. At least Selbourne does not also accuse his challengers of mental illness.