Invisble Cities by Italo Calvino

Posted on January 20th, 2014
Invisble Cities by Italo CalvinoInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Published by Vintage in 1997
Pages: 160
Location: Mongol Empire
Mode of travel: Camel, Ship
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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 of explorer of his...

Marco Polo talks about city after city, adapting his descriptions to the emperor's mood and his own possibilities for communication.

On the back of this edition of Invisible Cities there is a quote by Gore Vidal: ‘Of all, tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.’

I’m going to beg to differ – people like to know what they’re investing time in. One way of describing this book is as prose poetry: a sequence of 55 prose poems, framed by conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. It’s plotless, tightly structured, not very long, and filled with beautiful words. It’s the sort of book that takes far longer to read than the time required to pass one’s eyes over the words.

   a Kublai Khan  Venice,_by_Bolognino_Zaltieri,_1565

Or one could describe it by subject: I would almost call it a bestiary of cities and I can easily imagine fantasy writers using it as a sourcebook. Or by the feelings it evokes: my sensitivity to the city around me and others I had known was heightened and as a writer I wanted to rush home and review all the passages on cities I had ever written. Or by meaning: the blurb on my copy also says ‘it gradually becomes clear that he (Polo) is actually describing one city: Venice‘. I thought that was only clearly true of one section, but also that for the reader, all the cities in the book will be in relation to their own city – for me that would be London, for someone else, it might be Santa Fe.

The last, and perhaps the best way to describe the content of a book like this is to show, not tell, so here are two snippets from the description of Despina. I think you’ll understand why it’s a favorite of mine:

A Polo‘When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the white and red wind-socks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a a vessel that will take him away from the desert, …’

‘In the coastline’s haze, the sailor discerns the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing and swaying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea…’

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