Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a remarkable book. Originally published in 1972 in Italian as Le città invisibili, this is an unusual piece of literary work.

It reads like a series of vignettes where imaginary dialogues between Marco Polo and the all-powerful Kublai Khan are interspersed with evocative descriptions of cities that the former visited during his expeditions.

Each of the 55 imaginary cities – all named after women – represents an idea, a thought. As the conversations progress, it is soon unveiled that Marco Polo is in fact reminiscing about and reflecting upon only one city – Venice, where he was born and eventually died.

In the first vignette under “Cities and Signs”, Marco Polo talks about the city of Tamara:

The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things… The wares which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness.

The beautiful prose in Invisible Cities is inspiring and contemplative. Marco Polo and Kublai Khan did not speak the same language, hence the former used objects from the city to narrate his stories. Does this mean that each tale was left open to the Mongol ruler’s interpretation?

In one of their exchanges, Marco Polo commented:

I speak and speak but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.

Reading Invisible Cities is like discovering a treasure trove that is rich in sentiment and wisdom. No wonder Kublai Khan looked forward to Marco Polo’s tales of unknown lands.

One of my favourite excerpts revolves around the city of Zenobia:

It is pointless trying to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

Invisible Cities may be an atypical novel, but it is definitely a classic. Written more than 40 years ago, the questions and thoughts that it evokes are relevant today and probably will remain so in the future.

For instance:

The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio.

On the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic bags, the remains of yesterday’s Leonia await the garbage truck. Not only squeezed tubes of toothpaste, blown-out light bulbs, newspapers, containers, wrappings, but also boilers, encyclopedias, pianos, porcelain dinner services. It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought, that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of new things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity.

At less than 150 pages, the book is relatively thin compared to most of my other books. However, this is an intense read and I would recommend to not rush through it and to take some time to reflect after reading about each city.

I do not usually re-read books, but I am sure that I will be revisiting Invisible Cities over and over again.

4 replies on “Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

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