Invisible Cities

InvisibleCitiesI tend to demand more out of books.  I want the intellectual challenges.  I want authors to be brilliant.  And Invisible Cities can be read on such a level.  In fact, all over the internet and in universities you can find analyses of this text that are of high-academic level.  There are charts.  There are theories. And there are examples.  However, I enjoyed this text on a more purely reader-ly level.  Published in Italian in 1972, Calvino presents a unique text which can be read as fiction, short prose, or even as fantasy.

Calvino is, generally, a bit of a difficult author.  I am rather sure that he knew that and liked that fact.  He’s arrogant, because he knows that he is educated and a bit monied.  So, he is not writing for the common man.  His audience is not the beginning reader or the basic reader. Technically, this work is structured by a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Some of these sections are repetitive.  Maybe they could have been done slightly better.  Interesting:  Polo and the Khan do not speak the same language – so though we read dialogue, it is also (possibly) imaginary.  Imagine instead Polo playing charades and gesturing to describe cities.  Seriously – imagine it.  If I had you describe the city you live in without using vocabulary (just gestures, expressions, movements, and sounds) could you do it? How would you do it?

At times, some of this conversation alludes to chess.  And these are some of my favorite parts.  What does the chess game represent? What does the victory actually gain? Can a city be made of chess pieces?  The majority of this text is symbolic and metaphorical.  So, none of the answers are immediate and prima facie.  At one point we are told that Polo is not actually describing the dozens of cities he encountered in his travels.  Instead, he is re-describing Venice, his hometown.  It makes for another interesting intellectual point of interruption.

To be honest I focused on reading about the cities themselves.  There are 55 cities described.  Each of these falls under one of eleven categories.  Some readers may want to focus on these categories.  I did, to an extent, but I got a bit disinterested in doing that.  I probably should have done better on that front.  Anyway, even if you read this work on a very basic level – as I did – you should find something intriguing or surprising in the descriptions of the various cities.

My favorite cities were Clarice, Eusapia, Adelma, and Perinthia.  These were my favorites because I found them most shocking to imagine and consider.  These descriptions provided the most shock-value and curiosity to me.  I suspect other readers may select different cities to remark upon.  When I read the descriptions of these cities, however, I got an eerie feeling, or I was surprised, or I gasped at what I imagined.  Anyway, I want to keep a copy of this book around so I can pick up and read these cities in the future whenever I get the urge to do so.

At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume.  And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.  (Chapter 9)

I selected this quote from a section of dialogue between Polo and the Khan.  I think this is the best summary of the entire work. I wish I was expert-level in Italian to read this sentence in its original and really let this concept sink in my brain.  In English, it is not terrible – but I feel like there is a whole lot in just this little excerpt.

In the past I’ve studied and written about Ayn Rand’s novels, Flatiron buildings, China Mieville’s novels, and human geography.  Reading Calvino’s work actually did not cause me to move into a science fiction/fantasy mindset – but one that focused on the city qua city and architecture.  I was slightly disappointed, because some part of me wanted the science fiction catalyst.  However, I did not really mind the foray into these other subjects.  A result of this is that after reading the work, I’ve been considering all the cities I have lived in and visited and trying to see them through Marco Polo/Calvino’s imagination.  This is definitely an ongoing process, so I am glad Calvino gave me some solid food for thought.  At the end of the day, this is not going to be every reader’s best-loved work.

4 stars

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