lukas, March 8, 2014 (view all comments by lukas)
"Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know." So, like, Kublai Khan and Marco Polo are just kicking it in a garden and M-Pol starts telling the Khan stories of these fantastic cities, which maybe are all the same city? More like "Awesome Cities," amiright? The great Italian fabulist's novel is a paean to storytelling and imagination in the tradition of the Arabian Nights, Chaucer and Calvino's countryman Boccaccio. I still think "If On A Winter's Night" his best work. You may also like Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco.
I festooned this small book with yellow sticky notes of the interesting bits, of the beautiful bits, of the energizing bits.
It is imagination.
This is imagination on a multiplicity of levels and layers. Imagine, if you can, Marco Polo and Genghis Khan talking about Polo's travel experiences. Then imagine Polo describing the wonders of the things he's seen. Then imagine that Polo has imagined more cities than he's seen, filled them with magical constructs, and eccentric citizenry, architecture, social mores.
It is, perhaps, most like a travel journal, or log, but like none you could have imagined. Polo, or perhaps Khan's biographers, have catalogued these "invisible cities" as belonging to distinct classifications.
. . . and several more. Then comes a short description of the city that purports to provide the rationale for the city having been classified as it was.
These descriptions are collected into sets, separated by the narrator's observation of the meeting and conversations between Khan and Polo.
The writing is brilliant. Calvino's imagination appears to be unbounded and endless.
From one of the festooning stickies, picked randomly:
". . . But with all this, I would not be telling you the city's true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and all of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labour which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave" (from Cities and Desire 2).
And from one the Khan/Polo ruminations:
". . .
As time went by, words began to replace objects and gestures in Marco's tales: first exclamations, isolated nouns, dry verbs, then phrases, rarified and leafy discourses, metaphors and tropes. The foreigner had learned to speak the emperor's language or the emperor to understand the language of the foreigner.
But you would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past: to be sure, words were more useful than objects and gestures in listing the most important things of every province and city -- monuments, markets, costumes, fauna and flora -- and yet when Polo began to talk about how life must be in those places, day after day, evening after evening, words failed him, and little by little, he went back to relying on gestures, grimaces, glances" (from after Trading Cities 1).
Bronte, September 2, 2011 (view all comments by Bronte)
A timeless novella in a series of prose poems, translated from the original Italian, in which explorer Marco Polo talks with Kublai Khan and described for him 55 imaginary cities he's seen on his travels. Each chapter in this slim book is a short, beautiful burst of language.
Harvest/HBJ Book -
by Jason W.,
In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan tell stories of the cities they've seen, imagined, dreamt, and remembered. The result is a diaphanous fantasy alternating between mirage and memory, like bridges slipping through river fog, or minarets wavering in desert heat. In the end, after a traveler's tour of cities possible and impossible, the two storytellers find themselves on common ground.
Invisible Cities is a great introduction to Calvino short, but wide in scope; intelligent, yet accessible; dazzling, yet profound. I love this book, but I can't really explain why. It defies easy categorization or synopsis. Invisible Cities exists for no other reason than Calvino wrote it. It exists, like sunlight, without question. And like sunlight, it illuminates something inexpressible and mysterious. It provokes the same feelings I have when I return home after traveling outside the country subtle shifts in perception and value that texture my home city with new light, adding deeper layers of understanding and meaning to my quotidian life.
I want to live in the cities Calvino describes, and it turns out that I already do I just don't always see the remarkable, or hold the perspective necessary to observe beauty in the commonplace. Ask me to describe the city I live in, and I will describe my own life. Invisible Cities is kind of like that.
by Jason W.
by Gore Vidal, The New York Review of Books,
"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."
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