If you’re sitting on the floor, surrounded by a clutter of stories you’ve collected, carefully filing fiction into categories, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities will rebel. It will softly hide behind pastel curtains and shake its head. This book refuses to let itself be categorised. It is fantasy… but not quite so; historical fiction… but not quite so; geographical chronicle… but not quite so. It falls a little short of everything—but also transcends.
Held together by conversational snippets between the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and emperor Kublai Khan, Invisible Cities has Marco Polo’s descriptive accounts of cities he claims to have walked through. And if you’re, like me, a sucker for poetic tools, this book will floor you—it’s something else altogether. Calvino pushes conventionality off the table, and focuses on the little, pretty things that often go unnoticed. He sheds light on the things we tend to brush off: women combing their hair, old men’s wrinkles, flagpoles, squeezed out toothpaste tubes, women with fine teeth. And as commonplace as these might appear initially, Calvino knows how to make you gape at the ordinary.
And when I say this book steers clear of conventionality, I mean that the basic features which are supposed to form the skeleton in a work of fiction are absent. The vacancy is too loud to ignore. The book has no distinct plot, something that a story usually needs to keep itself erect—and Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are the only characters. Of course, the cities could be taken as characters too, but hey, that’s… unconventional. There is no definite start or end to the book. You could put your hands in the air and decide to begin in the middle, and the book would still run smoothly.
"There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of [city]: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.”
Whatever smidgeon of plot exists is this. Kublai Khan is tired of insipid stories other merchants bring to him of his cities; so when Marco Polo, eloquent and vivid, paints pictures with his words, the emperor is captivated and keeps wanting more. That is largely what the book is: Marco Polo describing cities in a manner that makes you feel like you have been to all these cities.
“No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.”
The 55 cities Marco Polo talks about are divided into 11 groups: Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Thin Cities, Cities and the Sky, Cities and the Dead, et al. And in well-built prose poems he describes these cities, swinging back and forth between these themes. Although I should point out, as you progress, you begin to notice traces of redundancy. I definitely wondered halfway through, whether I was reading Calvino’s version of the six blind men and the elephant. But the genius that Calvino is has something to say about this, as well:
“The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind.”
“Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.”
But, in one of the conversations with Kublai Khan, when asked about why he talks of all kinds, shapes and sizes of cities but never of his own city, Venice, Marco Polo says, and quite unforgettably, I might add:
“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”
Calvino, by the end of this very small book, tires you with how fantastic he is. Every few chapters, one needs to take some time to breathe and soak the sheer magnificence embedded in his words. With this travelogue extraordinaire, and of non-existent cities at that, one has to admit that Calvino is truly brilliant. This book is a painting—it is 55 paintings.
By the time I reached the last city in the series, I was left breathless. The air in my lungs escaped to cities that don’t even exist.