invisible_cities.jpgI was first introduced to this book via an excerpt posted here, and it instantly earned a place on my “find this and read it” list – and it’s only taken me about two years to get to it.

Invisible Cities (or Le città invisibili) was published in 1972, and translated into English by William Weaver in 1974. Italo Calvino was born in Cuba to Italian parents; the family returned to Italy shortly after his birth in 1923.

It’s an intricately structured novel, but the short version is that its made up of nine sections, each itself made up of short (1-3 pages) descriptions of cities ostensibly visited by Marco Polo during his travels through Kublai Khan’s empire. Each of the larger sections both begins and ends with a dialogue between Marco and Kublai narrated by a third-person narrator; the descriptions of the cities are (apparently) narrated by Marco Polo himself. Some of them, though, are blatantly anachronistic, and I think a few more are subtly so, though I don’t know enough to know.

The headings of the descriptions recur – “Cities and Names,” “Cities and Desire,” “Thin Cities,” “Continuous Cities,” etc – and are incrementally numbered, which is important to one of the novel’s patterns. Several major themes run through the novel: on the dual (or tripartite) nature of cities; on what distinguishes one city from another, and what doesn’t; on how a city is different for an inhabitant and a visitor; on how cities endure and change through time. The dialogues between Polo and Khan deal with, among other things, memory, desire, facing one’s mortality, and the futility of attempting to know or understand everything, or even much of anything.

It’s a beautiful book, and I wish I had room to quote about half of it – so really, you should just go read it. It’s short (about 160 pages) and the brevity of its sections and subsections makes it easy to read in bits and pieces – though I imagine reading it in one sitting is an interesting experience.

I’ll end with an excerpt, the second section titled “Continuous Cities”:

If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have though I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off. The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the others, with the same little greenish and yellowish houses. Following the same signs we swung around the same flow beds in the same squares. The downtown streets displayed goods, packages, signs that had not changed at all. This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had already heard and spoken my dialogues with the buyers and sellers of hardware; I had ended other days identically, looking through the same goblets at the same swaying navels.

Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.

“You can resume your flight whenever you like,” they said to me, “but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.”



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