Tuesday, September 7, 2010

City Impressions

Artistic interpretations of some of the Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino


The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake, with houses all verandas one
above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets look out over the water.
Thus the traveller, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the
other reflected, upside-down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that
the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its
every point would be reflected in its mirror, and the Valdrada down in the water
contains not only all the flutings and juttings of the facades that rise above the
lake, but also the rooms' interiors with ceilings and floors, the perspective of
the halls, the mirrors of the wardrobes.
Valdrada's inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that
action and its mirror-image, which possesses the special dignity of images, and
this awareness prevents them from forgetfulness. Even when lovers twist their
naked bodies, skin against skin, seeking the position that will give one the most
pleasure in the other, even when murderers plunge the knife into the black veins
of the neck and more clotted blood pours out the more they press the blade that
slips between the tendons, it is not so much their copulating or murdering that
matters as the copulating or murdering of the images, limpid and cold in the
At times the mirror increases a thing's value, at times denies it. Not
everything that seems valuable above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored.
The twin cities are not equal, because nothing that exists or happens in Valdrada
is symmetrical: every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and
gesture inverted, point by point. The two Valdradas live for each other, their
eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.

When he enters the territory of which Eutropia is the capital, the traveller sees
not one city but many, of equal size and not unlike one another, scattered over a
vast, rolling plateau. Eutropia is not one, but all these cities together; only
one is inhabited at a time, the others are empty; and this process is carried out
in rotation. Now I shall tell you how. On the day when Eutropia's inhabitants feel
the grip of weariness and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his
house and his life, debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the
whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them,
empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife, will
see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend his time with
different pastimes, friends, gossip. So their life is renewed from move to move,
among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams or winds make each site
somehow different from the others. Since their society is ordered without great
distinctions of wealth or authority, the passage from one function to another
takes place almost without jolts; variety is guaranteed by the multiple
assignments, so that in the span of a lifetime a man rarely returns to a job that
has already been his.
Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty
chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they
repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they open alternate
mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia
remains always the same. Mercury, god of the fickle, to whom the city is sacred,
worked this ambiguous miracle.

The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake
between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new
clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening
to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio.
On the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic bags, the remains of
yesterday's Leonia await the garbage truck. Not only squeezed tubes of toothpaste,
blown-out light bulbs, newspapers, containers, wrappings, but also boilers,
encyclopedias, pianos, porcelain dinner services. It is not so much by the things
that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia's
opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for
the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia's true passion is really, as they say,
the enjoyment of new and different things, and not, instead the joy of expelling,
discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity. The fact is that street
cleaners are welcomed like angels, and their task of removing the residue of
yesterday's existence is surrounded by a respectful silence, like a ritual that
inspires devotion, perhaps only because once things have been cast off nobody
wants to have to think about them further.
Nobody wonders where, each day, they carry their load of refuse. Outside the
city, surely; but each year the city expands, and the street cleaners have to fall
farther back. The bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become
stratified, extend over a wider perimeter. Besides, the more Leonia's talent for
making new materials excels, the more the rubbish improves in quality, resists
time, the elements, fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible
leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of
This is the result: the more Leonia expels goods, the more it accumulates
them; the scales of its past are soldered into a cuirass that cannot be removed.
As the city is renewed each day, it preserves all of itself in its only definitive
form: yesterday's sweepings piled up on the sweepings of the day before yesterday
and of all its days and years and decades.
Leonia's rubbish little by little would invade the world, if, from beyond
the final crest of its boundless rubbish heap, the street cleaners of other cities
were not pressing, also pushing mountains of refuse in front of themselves.
Perhaps the whole world, beyond Leonia's boundaries, is covered by craters of
rubbish, each surrounding a metropolis in constant eruption. The boundaries
between the alien, hostile cities are infected ramparts where the detritus of both
support each other, overlap, mingle.
The greater its height grows, the more the danger of a landslide looms: a
tin can, an old tyre, an unravelled wine-flask, if it rolls towards Leonia, is
enough to bring with it an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years,
withered flowers, submerging the city in its own past, which it had tried in vain
to reject, mingling with the past of the neighbouring cities, finally clean. A
cataclysm will flatten the sordid mountain range, cancelling every trace of the
metropolis always dressed in new clothes. In the nearby cities they are all ready,
waiting with bulldozers to flatten the terrain, to push into the new territory,
expand, and drive the new street cleaners still farther out.

What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air.
The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling,
on every stair another stairway is set in negative, over the roofs of the houses
hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds. We do not know if the
inhabitants can move about in the city, widening the worm tunnels and the crevices
where roots twist: the dampness destroys people's bodies and they have scant
strength; everyone is better off remaining still, prone; anyway, it is dark.
From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, 'It's down below
there,' and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting
your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam.

I should not tell you of Berenice, the unjust city, which crowns with triglyphs,
abaci, metopes the gears of its meat-grinding machines (the men assigned to
polishing, when they raise their chins over the balustrades and contemplate the
atria, stairways, porticos, feel even more imprisoned and short of stature).
Instead. I should tell you of the hidden Berenice, the city of the just, handling
makeshift materials in the shadowy rooms behind the shops and beneath the stairs,
linking a network of wires and pipes and pulleys and pistons and counterweights
that infiltrates like a climbing plant among the great cogged wheels (when they
jam, a subdued ticking gives warning that a new precision mechanism is governing
the city). Instead of describing to you the perfumed pools of the baths where the
unjust of Berenice recline and weave their intrigues with rotund eloquence and
observe with a proprietary eye the rotund flesh of the bathing odalisques, I
should say to you how the just, always cautious to evade the spying sycophants and
the Janizaries' mass arrests, recognize one another by their way of speaking,
especially their pronunciation of commas and parentheses; from their habits which
remain austere and innocent, avoiding complicated and nervous moods; from their
sober but tasty cuisine, which evokes an ancient golden age: rice and celery soup,
boiled beans, fried squash flowers.
From these data it is possible to deduce an image of the future Berenice,
which will bring you closer to knowing the truth than any other information about
the city as it is seen today. You must nevertheless bear in mind what I am about
to say to you: in the seed of the city of the just, a malignant seed is hidden, in
its turn: the certainty and pride of being in the right--and of being more just
than many others who call themselves more just than the just. This seed ferments
in bitterness, rivalry, resentment; and the natural desire of revenge on the
unjust is coloured by a yearning to be in their place and to act as they do.
Another unjust city, though different from the first, is digging out its space
within the double sheath of the unjust and just Berenices.
Having said this, I do not wish your eyes to catch a distorted image, so I
must draw your attention to an intrinsic quality of this unjust city germinating
secretly inside the secret just city: and this is the possible awakening--as if in
an excited opening of windows--of a later love for justice, not yet subjected to
rules, capable of reassembling a city still more just than it was before it became
the vessel of injustice. But if you peer deeper into this new germ of justice you
can discern a tiny spot that is spreading like the mounting tendency to impose
what is just through what is unjust, and perhaps this is the germ of an immense
metropolis ...
From my words you will have reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is
a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I
wanted to warn you about is something else: all the future Berenices are already
present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed,

Friday, September 3, 2010

Invisible Cities

By Italo Calvino.

I read and sat and sat ……thinking about how to write this one, how do I capture the essence of this book, how do I review. Then I reread parts and sat and sat, only to realize that I had all the content as points but nothing that actually pulled the things together. Beginning to wonder if there really was an outlined theme to this, or I have just over-read into things to see the big picture. I sit down and I write this.

In the book, through his conversations with the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, the King of the Tartars tries to uncover the order (draw parallels) between the cities in his expanding empire. Marco describes the cities that he has traveled to, either physically or in his head. The book opens from a real page in world history but soon departs creatively to far off lands that take no time to  trigger the ‘what if’s in your head.

The writing style is such that the line between physical description and its expressionist adjectivism is blurred. So one really has to rely upon the author’s highly subjective arguments for inference. But that always happens in any description. A traveler’s perception of a place may be very different than that of a native because he can detach himself from the scene and become an onlooker. But, this gets even more interesting when Marco Polo reveals that the cities he’s been describing were all in some way or the other, Venice, his native city, because then polo’s position (foreigner or resident) is questioned and one can discuss his probable perspective . The author hence says, “A city must not be confused with the words that describe it”. Also, stating in the same breath that the city a very personal and yet it belongs to no one. You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.

The writing is extremely layered. As much as it talks about cities, human manifestations of cities are implicit. Like the city of Thekla where the construction never gets completed, pretty much how we as humans should be. The moment we stop growing and developing, we start to deteriorate. Also in the city of Laudomia. How there are three parallel ‘Laudomia’s the one past, present and future. And just as humans, the city in the present is reassured by the dead and insecure of the unborn because it causes uncertainty and apprehension .

The book seems very randomly put together in the beginning, only by the middle, one begins to realize the rhythm and organization in the format. And it appears to be a conscious attempt to make the reading more impactful. Even the re-read didn’t seem so painful because more could be read between the lines, and for some reason (good writing/ bad reading), few passages felt as if I hadn’t read them before. Perhaps, also because there were too many cities to absorb.

The thing to note here is that these cities are not imaginary, they are invisible, they are hidden under the multitudes of layers of other information that we see around us, and they meet only the most observant eye, Marco Polo. But, also, are travelers always on a lookout for cities, wherever they may find them?

PS: I just realized I wrote really long sentences too…. thanks to Italo Calvino !

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

::URBAN- II ::


photograph credits:
Rohan Patankar,
March 23, 2009,
New Delhi.