The OF Blog: Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. (p. 5)
Italo Calvino is one of my favorite 20th century writers and one of a rare few whose works I have in three different languages (Italian, English, and Serbian). Along with Jorge Luis Borges, Calvino displayed a rare talent for constructing imagined vistas populated with interesting people, resting on sometimes unsettling thematic foundations. Calvino did not have to use expansive vocabularies or extremely detailed descriptions to create these vivid settings; a few words placed just so conveyed more wealth of ideas and images than most writers can do with pages of prose.

In his 1972 novel, Invisible Cities (later nominated for the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novel), Calvino perhaps created his most multilayered work. Using the historical backdrop of Marco Polo and his relationship with the Emperor Kublai Khan, Calvino explores not just how we imagine strange settings, but also why we have such a need for such created realms in the first place. Moreover, the framing story of Polo and the Emperor serves to highlight not just these fictional creations, but also how our own desires and fears can be reflected in our imaginations.

The framing story has Kublai Khan ask Marco Polo about his travels within the Emperor's vast realm and what he witnesses there. Polo proceeds to describe strange cities, cities of memory, desire, signs; cities that are thin, cities with eyes, cities of trade and cities of names and eyes; sky and city and the dead and city are also touched upon in these tales. Below is one such description:

Cities & Memory 1:

Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time. (p. 7)
In this passage, not only is Diomira described as a physical form, but that there is a personal quality attached to it, one in which a visitor newly arrived would find him/herself reminded not just of the concrete present, but also of a memory of something that resides within the soul of that traveler. This entry, the first of over 50, serves to show the reader that Polo's descriptions are far more than just simple narrative exercises. But there is another quality on display in these tales and in how the Emperor receives them. Here, in the second part of the framing story, the nature of Polo's early storytelling is shown:

Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks - ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes - which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant's beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city's founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name. But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused. In the Khan's mind the empire was reflected in a desert of labile and interchangeable data, like grains of sand, from which there appeared, for each city and province, the figures evoked by the Venetian's logogriphs. (pp. 21-22)
It is here where the stories told begin to transform, their meanings deepening and becoming more complex, even though Calvino rarely has a tale go past three pages. It is this idea that words and places represent still greater values and truths, perhaps ultimately ending in Truth being expressed through the emblematic nature of these stories of places, that makes Invisible Cities a work that has to be sampled, considered, put aside, and then read anew regularly.

For myself, this book is like a multifaceted prism that casts off various colors of light, each representing just one tiny perceived part of the whole. As Polo continues to tell his stories about the fantastical cities that he may or may not have seen, as the Emperor continues to probe and to test Polo's veracity, one can begin to recognize so many elements in common that unite these tales. There is something universal about describing human beings, even when showing them and their customs (as reflected in the physical nature of the cities Polo describes) as being so diverse. It is that realization that in all the strangeness, in all the diversity of customs and traditions, in the growing doubts even of the Emperor, that a reader can begin to be sucked into the tale. After all, if you were to pick five people from any given city to describe that city to someone who had never heard of that place, much less seen it, wouldn't it stand to reason that each tale would reflect different facets of that city, real as it should be?

This re-read of Calvino's work is my second time total, with the first being read in early 2007. In this re-read, I discovered that Calvino's prose sparkled even more, that my imagination was running a bit more, trying to picture cities such as Diomira. I found myself wandering in thought, wondering about the power that cities often have on the human imagination. I became lost in reflective ruminations, before I came to realize that this perhaps was just what Calvino was aiming to do with this work. Many people read fantasies to experience another's imagination; here I found myself creating my own imaginative settings while reading a few words from the author. For this alone, even above Calvino's prose and economy with words, I would have rated Invisible Cities as one of my favorite fictions. Since these other elements are also present, it is a work that I would strongly encourage readers to read, reflect, and then to re-read multiple times over the years, just to see how deep Calvino's work sinks into your own imagination.


Seth said...

I need to read this one. I read "If on a winter's night a traveler" and "Cosmicomics", and loved them both.

Rebecca Reid said...

What a beautiful review!

I just read this and I'm trying to put in to words my thoughts. To be honest, I didn't get it. I understand that all the more reading your review. I think it's a book I need to revisit at a different point in my life. I was distracted as I tried to read and while I agree Calvino's writing is amazingly powerful, I didn't like how the whole book felt disjointed.

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