Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

I don’t believe I’ve ever read any book that I have more trouble reviewing than Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Though it’s classified as a novel, it is unlike any novel I had read before. In truth, as I read it, I thought of it more as an epic poem than a novel. It seems to have more in common with Homer’s Iliad than with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Perhaps that doesn’t quite say it, because The Iliad tells a story, but Invisible Cities seems less concerned about the plot and more concerned about ideas. Like most poems—indeed, like most pieces of literature—it has layers. Since these layers are subject to multiple interpretations, I fear my reading was too superficial to dive into those interpretations. 

I read Invisible Cities in the same spirit that I would read a novel. I read a chapter, moved to the next chapter, and so on until I reached the end of the book. Though that is a sound strategy for reading most novels, short stories, and even poems, it’s not well-suited for Invisible Cities. The passages in this book read like fables and parables. As such, they required more attention than the typical chapter or scene in a novel. A better way to read it is to pick a passage about one of the fifty-five cities described and read it. Once you finish that passage, set the book down, close your eyes, and ask yourself: What does it mean? What is this parable telling me? Instead of worrying about finishing the novel, worry about interpreting it.

When I read a novel or short story, I like to hook my understanding of it on the characters. Invisible Cities has only two main characters. Kublai Khan, the emperor, is the protagonist. He desires to understand the scope and nature of his empire. He believes understanding the various cities it includes will achieve that goal for him. He turns to Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and explorer, to describe the cities. But Marco’s descriptions are filled with fantasy, illusion, anachronisms, and parables. Though Khan knows Polo is unreliable, he still finds values in the descriptions. 

These cities are divided into several categories, like Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Trading Cities, Cities & The Dead, and Hidden Cities. Those are only five of the eleven categories Calvino uses. Each group contains five cities, for a total of fifty-five cities. There is movement from Memory to Hidden Cities. There is, I believe, a parable to be found even in that movement, but again I fear my superficial reading of the novel prevents me from understanding it. And another curiosity worth mentioning: All the cities have female names. 

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. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.

I love the imagery described in this novel. Calvino grounds these fabled cities with recognizable objects like airports, streets, domes, bathtubs, canals, and lawns. He writes about the foods and drinks to be found in the cities, and he tells us what exports they have. He describes spice markets, fashion stores, and shopping malls. Though fantasies, we recognized these cities as places we’ve been and still live. In the absence of a recognizable plot, it was the imagery that kept me turning the pages. I wanted to know what wonders I would find in each new city. Calvino never disappointed. Every city was both fanciful and real, both imaginative and tangible.    

Italo Calvino was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1923. His mother named him Italo to give him a lifelong reminder that he’s of Italian heritage. That reminder proved superfluous because when he was two, the family moved back to Italy. Since his parents were scientists, they wanted him to study science. During his school years, he struggled with the science education his parents wanted and the literature studies he preferred. World War II seemed to have decided him. During the war, he was a member of the Italian Resistance. After the war, he dedicated himself to literature. He published his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, in 1947. Two years later, he published a collection of short stories, The Crow Comes Last. Well-received, these works established him as a writer to watch and read. 

In 1952, he published The Cloven Viscount. This novel was a break from the more traditional novels and stories that he had been writing.  “I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.” The Cloven Viscount established him as a modern fabulist. It is as a collection of fables that Invisible Cities is best read and understood. Published in 1972, it was a late novel by Calvino. He died in 1985. 

Isaura, city of the thousand wells, is said to rise over a deep, subterranean lake. On all sides, where the inhabitants dig long vertical holes in the ground, they succeed in drawing up water, as far as the city extends, and no farther. Its green border repeats the dark outline of the buried lake; an invisible landscape conditions the visible one; everything that moves in the sunlight is driven by the lapping wave enclosed beneath the rock’s calcareous.

I read Invisible Cities as part of my survey of world literature. Lacking the funds to tour the world, I’m touring it in my reading. Earlier this year, I reviewed Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Other noteworthy works in this literary tour are Cinnamon by Samar Yazbek and A Long Day’s Evening by Turkish writer Bilge Karasu. Invisible Cities gave a taste of Italy. Like too much in my blog, I fear I’ve been haphazard in my “world tour,” but I plan to make every third or fourth novel a destination on that tour. Since I’m an American, most books I read are American novels. Since I’m a native English speaker, I tend to favor stories from English-speaking nations. But it’s important to read literature from other countries. It helps to understand two things: How we differ and how we are the same.

I loved reading Invisible Cities. If the first goal of literature—as I believe it is—is to entertain, this book achieved that goal. On every page, I found entertaining imagery and ideas. But it’s also a book of ideas and themes. Parables and fables, yes, but taken together, they represent the world that we all know. As Marco Polo told Kublai Khan: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” 

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