“I speak and speak,” Marco Polo says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting… It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”
When I began reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, it felt as though I had known it all my life. At the same time, I felt like I would never really be ready to read it.
Perhaps the best way to approach Invisible Cities is to embrace its subjectivity — the looseness, the elusiveness of it. It slips through grasping fingers and retreats from ostentatious words; one can barely graze at its essence in attempting to capture it.
You can say Invisible Cities is about cities — unfamiliar, faraway, magnificent — yet in a way, it is about everything else. Calvino’s numerous descriptions of cities draw the reader’s thoughts away from the literal significance of words to contemplations of human experience, the course of civilization, living and dreaming and the very nature of storytelling.
At first, reading the novel was an overwhelming sensory experience. Calvino designates the reader as spectator, and we move through fragmented views of the cities he creates and absorb what we can. The crystal theatre. The spiral staircases with spiral seashells. The stables with beautiful women. The fringed cushions by the mullioned windows. A city that contains its past like the lines of a hand.
I felt, almost voyeuristically, as though I was being allowed a glance of something exotic.
Yet almost without realizing it, the tangible, sensory experience gradually translated into a reflection inwards. The cities themselves stopped mattering; their names blended into one another. It was the musings they inspired and memories they brought to light that became the forefront of my reading experience.
Calvino’s cities engage with the liminality of dreams and reality and embrace the intersection between the two. What is familiar and known to us merges with the unfamiliar — something that has until now only been wisps of dreams we never dared to explore — and foreign lands begin to feel like memories. His cities inspire the reader to inhabit a conflation of the two, and we not only see how our own individual dreams shape the common reality we perceive, but also how the spaces we occupy reflect ourselves.
Kublai Khan thinks he will understand the empire better once he understands the cities he hears about. But I think he will only understand himself.
Invisible Cities is primarily a conversation, between the aged emperor Kublai Khan and Venetian explorer Marco Polo. Calvino weaves and intersperses his lyrical, almost surreal prose descriptions of cities with dialogues between the emperor and explorer. The Khan orders Marco to explore his empire, return and narrate his experiences. While Marco’s descriptions do not present any relevant or factual information, regarding incidents like famines, extortions or conspiracies, they convey the vividness, life and vitality of the cities that from Kublai Khan’s empire.
At the cusp of dealing with the emptiness that comes with ruling an ever-expanding empire and the discovery that it is but an “endless, formless ruin,” the Khan welcomes the freshness that Marco Polo and his stories bring.
One evening, the Khan attempts to map the trajectory of his empire on a chessboard. He understands the patterns and arrives at the checkmate, only to realize that the purpose of the game has eluded him. His final result is a “square of planed wood: nothingness.” This is when Marco speaks: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought…”
What, then, are these invisible cities? They may all be figments of Marco Polo’s imagination, or recreations of different aspects of the very same city, Venice. They may be possibilities and forms of what a city could be. They could be ideas, dreams, reverberations of the human psyche. Maybe they are invisible because they are not real, or maybe they are the most real characteristics of an empire that is only an abstraction.
Perhaps the best way to approach Invisible Cities is to give up any attempt to define it at all. Maybe, like Marco Polo, you do not stay. You do not really understand; you only arrive, and leave, with traces, memories, thoughts and dreams.
“You leave Tamara without having discovered it.”
Freya Savla | firstname.lastname@example.org .