Title: Invisible Cities
Author: Italo Calvino (translated by William Weaver)
Publication Date: 1972 (translated 1974)
LC Call Number: PQ4809.A45 C513
I keep reading Italo Calvino books, and I often don’t feel like I like them as much as I should, and I’m not sure why. I really liked this one, though; I’d say I enjoyed it more than any of his books I’ve read so far. Maybe I just read it at the right moment.
In any case, although it’s in prose, it reads like poetry. The conceit is that Marco Polo is describing his travels to Kublai Khan, giving a short explanation of the essence of each city that he has seen. The reader is not intended to take this seriously, however. The cities are not real ones, and no information is given about their location, their population, the buildings they might contain. Instead, the cities represent insights, or moods, or ways of seeing the world. Toward the end of the book, they take on an anachronistically modern character; otherwise, they are mostly dreamlike and occasionally fantastic or possibly supernatural. The characters of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan spend a lot of time discussing whether they exist or not, eventually deciding that they probably don’t, and if they do, they may not be Kublai Khan and Marco Polo at all. So, although the book masquerades as a travelogue, it is a fairly transparent pretense. The point is to think of the cities and what they mean, and the two characters exist only to provide hints as to why certain cities are grouped together. Perhaps that’s what I should be writing about in this post, but as I read, I was more engaged in the procession of city after city.
What’s needed, of course, is for Calvino to write it elegantly enough, and for his ideas to be engaging enough, for this to be worth reading. And he does, and they are. Here are some of the cities I found intriguing:
Maurilia, which looks back to a nostalgic past with which it has no real connection. Calvino considers the possibility of a total separation between cities and their histories:
“… sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves” (30).
This is a clever way of skewering nostalgia and those who claim that they can ground themselves in histories that they consider eminent or glorious. It raises the question of what history means and what our relationship to it can be. This is dangerous too, of course, because it can also erase the things that the citizens of these cities would like to forget—in any case, I’m not convinced of the truth of this idea but I find it fascinating.
Or Fedora, which is probably the city that will stick in my mind the longest. It’s really about the way that possible futures change from moment to moment and disappear as the present overtakes them.
“When he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe” (32).
Aside from the rather compelling idea of a museum full of lost potentials in glass globes, which one can wander around and contemplate, this is kind of mind-bending to think about. There are more possible futures than actual presents, but most of them are dead, yet more come into being at every moment. It’s possible to look at this situation with regret; I’ve often said that opportunity cost is always infinite, and Fedora is really the city of this principle. We are always losing something, but in Fedora they preserve it. I’d love to visit a museum of potential futures and consider the relationships among them and the moment that could have brought them into being (but then, I was never much for living in the present or the actual).
Then there is Sophronia, in which the city of business and the carnival exist side by side when they are both there, but it is the business and the government that uproot themselves and move elsewhere, while the roller coasters and the trapezes remain. Calvino makes the point here that when half the city is gone, life is not complete, and they have to wait for it to come back. So work and play live side by side, and we need both of them–just play is as bad as just work–but I love how this image casts work as something that is as ephemeral as play. Sophronia needs both the carnival and the stone and marble and cement city to survive, but the temporary absence of SRS BIZNESS is fine.
Or the intriguing Ersilia. The citizens of this city stretch threads from one house to another to demarcate the relationships between their inhabitants, but when these threads become too numerous and they have to leave, the threads remain:
“Ersilia’s refugees look at at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that stretches the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing” (76).
The city is not only not the buildings, it’s not even the people. It’s the relationships among them, and these relationships don’t even need them. They continue to exist once the people have left. In a way, this is how real cities work too. People leave, but others cycle in. Nobody is essential in a city. But the other thing that is interesting about this is that the weight of all these relationships eventually becomes unbearable, and the people have to leave, because all of these threads eventually get in the way of them being able to lead their lives. This leads me to suspect that Calvino is not a city person, much as I am not, but I’ve certainly had similar experiences myself. He follows up on some of these ideas later with the city of Leandra, in which there are two kinds of gods, one which follows the families when they come and go, and the other, which remains with the houses. Both believe they are the true expression of the city, but Calvino does not take sides in this debate. But Melania comes next, in which there are certain roles and it does not matter who fills them. Later, there’s Clarice, which is a city that has prosperous and poor periods, always with the same objects going around and around. So, yes, some of the cities are about the quality of citiness and what this really means.
There are “Continuous Cities” which are concerned with issues of consumption, pollution, and litter, which seem anachronistic for the Marco Polo frame story (but maybe not, maybe they’re just inherent to cities, after all). Leonia is the most striking, with its street sweepers who need to go further and further out because the city is surrounded by huge piles of garbage.
Anyway, there are plenty of imaginary cities in this book; these are just the ones that resonated with me. In between descriptions of cities, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan have conversations that hint at why these cities must be described, and why Marco Polo describes them the way that he does. There are many different ways in which to consider their status as, essentially, extensions of Calvino’s version of Marco Polo. It’s made clear that everything depends on his vision and not on the cities themselves. This is especially relevant, of course, given that there is very little pretense that these cities are real, but in any case, this framework comments lightly on the notion of travelers’ tales as well as wearing the thin disguise of one. My favorite—and I do not think it is Calvino’s favorite, because in other parts of the framing device, he spends more time on the more abstract questions of how any of this can be communicated or even perceived—was this moment in which Marco Polo (Marco Polo, mind you!) seems to understand the theory of Orientalism and its effect on his stories. The Great Khan mentions that he has never yet spoken of Venice:
And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.”
“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.” (86)
That is—his description of cities foreign to him ultimately tells the reader more about his home culture than it does about the cities supposedly being described (and these descriptions are then used to reinforce ideas about the greatness and superiority of Venice). The next few sentences take this in an entirely different direction—Polo fears losing Venice, which clearly isn’t possible under this theory—but this idea is still there, and is slightly echoed elsewhere in the book. In this case, of course, the cites are metaphors for states of mind or ways of thinking. Maybe the same principle applies to those who try to think in ways not native to themselves?