Invisible Cities – Italo Cavino – Constructs of the Mind

Italo Calvino was the most translated Italian author of his time and a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Published in 1972, Invisible Cities (link to book) is considered Calvino’s masterpiece.  It’s a slender 165 page volume, but beware.  The words and the imagery and the stories are potent, so proceed in small doses.  It will stay with you long after you’ve taken it in, and you must stop to let it have its effect before taking more.

Calvino divides the novella into nine books and I recommend one book at a time, if need be, one city at a time.

The story takes place in Kublai Khan’s garden and each book begins and ends with a discussion or meeting between the aged emperor and Marco Polo.  In between, we read accounts of cities, the cities Polo enumerates for Khan.  The accounts and meetings are a scant page or two, three max.

The Tartar Emperor Kublai Khan and the Venetian traveler Marco Polo

 Calvino’s writing was experimental narrative, breaking the bounds of writing for that time.  We see this in Polo’s accounts of fantastical cities which lack a traditional storyline.  The gestalt or the collection when considered as a whole suggest that the city is as much imagination as it is a physical reality.

Here is how the book opens.

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.  . . .

It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns had made us heirs of their long undoing.  Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing. (Book 1, opening, Invisible Cities)

Polo describes cities for Khan which are part of the vast empire he rules, an empire he wants to possess.  But can anyone ever possess a kingdom? or even a city?

Polo describes Euphemia where the merchants from seven nations meet to exchange goods.  They can conduct trade anywhere in the empire but what “drives men to travel up rivers and cross deserts to come here” is  what happens “at night, by the fires all around the market  . . . at each word that one man says — the others tell” and later, when they have left, they can summon these memories “one by one  . . on your return from Euphemia, the city where memory is traded.”

Cities are visual, spatial, but they are also temporal, existing throughout their histories.  The cities of our memory are different than cities in reality.  But how much can anyone ever see of a city? standing in it, it stretches and turns, extending beyond the corner or beyond our sight.

Then there is a city like Irene, just in the distance. It changes upon approach for the herdsman who knows the Meadow, the Green Slope, the Shadowed Grass, the places in between; the cities are only visible on the horizon, some place far away.  If you saw Irene “standing in its midst, it would be a different city.”

Mount Tabor in Israel and the herdsman

So Khan asks Polo if he ever saw a city such as Kin-sai, the recent conquest and ancient capital which they visit together. Polo says he never imagined such a city.  Then he reports on his travels.

Khan was not tired so Polo told him stories of the cities until the sun rose, a feat like the famed storyteller Sheherazade and the 1000 stories she told over as many nights to the King.

Like Sheherazade, Polo concedes at dawn, “Sire, now I have told you all the cities I knew.”

Then Khan asks about the one city Polo never mentions.  Venice.  Venice is Marco Polo’s home.

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something of Venice.”

This statement is not at once clear to Khan and he demands to hear of Venice when he asks.  Polo says that in order to distinguish the qualities of other cities, he must “speak of a first city that remains implicit.”

And that is a truth for Khan and for us all:  we see through the lens of our own knowledge, experience, and ideas.  Polo realizes that and goes further.  “I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

Kublai Khan’s Empire at the end of his reign and Marco Polo’s route in yellow

 Polo tells Khan about Adelma, where “never in all my travels had I ventured as far.” Perhaps this opening prepares us for the horrors to come, for the sailor Polo sees on the dock, the man he “soldiered with and was dead.” The fisherman was the same old man from his childhood visits to the wharf, surely among the dead now, or the fever victim on the ground, reminding him of his father’s final throes of death, or the girl on the balcony who was “identical with one in my village who had gone mad for love and killed herself.”

I thought: “You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.” (Cities & the Dead, Book 6)

And Calvino shows us that the people we meet yesterday or today, in this city or in that city, in old forms or in new forms, begin to resemble those we once knew.  That, eventually, as we grow older and older, we fashion the “suitable mask” for every face we encounter.  It reminds us of someone we once knew.  “Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where each finds again the people he has known.  This means I, too, am dead.”

In the final book, Khan asks Polo if he will repeat the same stories for his people.  But Polo does not answer as he expects.  He says that he may speak and speak, but the “listener retains only the words he is expecting.”  And we infer that this resembles his visits with Khan in this way: “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

When Khan declares that he recognizes cities better on the atlas than in person, Polo answers:

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost; each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.  Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.” (Book 9, Opening)

Cities, as Calvino depicts in lyrical expansive prose, are ultimately constructs of the mind.  And, like Marco Polo’s accounts, these cities are ideas, forms, and creations which find their beginnings, their framework in Venice, or our own home cities wherever they may be.

Jul 1, 2014

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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