Sunday, June 13, 2010

Invisible Cities

by Italo Calvino

Since I just finished reading the Other City and wanted to read some Calvino I thought this one would be perfect. Invisible Cities is even less of a novel than the Other City. The premise is that Marco Polo is telling Kublai Khan about the places he has visited in his travels. The entries are very short and are mostly one or two page descriptions of cities interspersed occasionally with a page or two of conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Each entry is designated a specific type: Cities and Memory, Cities and Signs, Cities and Desire, Thin Cities, Cities and the Dead, Continuous Cities, Hidden Cities etc. I know it sounds strange, without any real plot or characters, just a book describing cities, but I absolutely loved it. The writing was beautiful and it was such a pleasure to dip into these little vignettes of cities.

Since I could never adequately explain this work or Calvino's beautiful prose and since they are so short I could not resist including one in its entirety: Cities and Desire #4.
In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.

The building with the globes is now Fedora's museum: every inhabitant visits it, chooses the city that corresponds to his desires, contemplates it, imagining his reflection in the medusa pond that would have collected the waters of the canal (if it had not been dried up), the view from the high canopied box along the avenue reserved for elephants (now banished from the city), the fun sliding down the spiral twisting minaret (which never found a pedestal from which to rise).

On the map of your empire, O Great Khan, there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only assumptions. The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later is possible no longer.
Here are some descriptions of more of my favorites.
  • The city with no walls, no ceilings, no floors, just "water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows." Thin Cities #3.
  • The city made up of two half cities, one permanent, one temporary, one a circus, one made of marble, stone and cement with factories, banks, schools. Each year the the marble, stone and cement city is loaded into its caravan to continue its itinerary. Thin Cities #4.
  • The city whose inhabitants all move onto a new city periodically and take on new jobs, new spouses, new hobbies and yet the city remains always the same. Trading Cities #3.
  • The spider web city built hanging down from a net over a chasm. Thin Cities #5
  • The city which has built an exact copy of itself below ground for their dead. Cities and the Dead # 3.
I also enjoyed the discussions between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
Polo: Perhaps this garden exist only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids, and we have never stopped: you, from raiding dust on the fields of battle; and I, from bargaining for sacks of pepper in distant bazaars. But each time we half-close our eyes, in the midst of the din and the throng, we are allowed to withdraw here, dressed in silk kimonos, to ponder what we are seeing and living, to draw conclusions, to contemplate from the distance.

Kublai: Perhaps this dialogue of ours is taking place between two beggars nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco Polo; as they shift through a rubbish heap, piling up rusted flotsam, scraps of cloth, wastepaper, while drunk on the few sips of bad wine, they see all the treasure of the East shine around them.

Polo: Perhaps all that is left of the world is wasteland covered in rubbish heaps, and the hanging garden of the Great Khan's palace. It is our eyelids that separate them, but we cannot know which is inside and which is outside.
No description could do this book justice. Just read it.

I read this for Once Upon A Time IV.


Carl V. said...

I have wanted to read Calvino for a long time and this is the one I really want to read. You've made it that much more tempting.

Bellezza said...

I'm glad to hear you so enthusiastic about Calvino. I've never read him before, and I picked up his work Cosmicomics for Carl's Challenge. But, I just couldn't get into the stories! I'll try them again, as you loved his work in Invisible Cities.

Moo said...


This is only the second Calvino that I read. The first was If On A Winter's Night A Traveler which I absolutely loved. A Traveler was more of a traditional novel than this, though not by much. I think I will try The Baron In the Trees next.


Moo said...


This is a quick and easy introduction to Calvino. I also highly recommend If On A Winter's Night A Traveler.