INVISIBLE CITIES (1974)
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 !