Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
This is an odd book, but it’s an odd book in the best possible way. Set in the past, specifically during the time of Marco Polo and his travels to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in what is now China, this is a volume that explores the reality and imagination of cities. The titular invisible cities are generally imaginary in nature, and there is both enough variety in the cities being described and enough coherence in the frame story that weaves the stories of these cities together to make the book a fascinating exploration of urban life as imagined by a very odd and very obviously urban Italian. The author seems to hint that whatever sameness we feel about our cities is due to either a failure of observation in seeing what distinct and quirky elements are there or a failure of imagination in picture the diversity of cities that could possibly exist and settling for imitations and copies of other cities rather than the forming of unique and individual forms. Either way, this book suggests that if we fault cities for being too dull and monotonous that the fault lies in ourselves and that we could have it better if we wanted it to be.
The book itself is a short one of a bit more than 150 pages. The book is divided into nine parts, each of which begins and ends with a dialogue of some kind between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which the Mongol emperor seeks some level of certainty about his struggling emperor and cannot manage to keep up with the fecundity of Polo’s imaginative description about cities that are hidden, continuous, connected to the sky and the dead, thin, related to eyes and desire and signs and trading and names and memory. Over 50 cities are imagined by the author, each of them told in a short series of passages that is a page or two (or sometimes a bit more than two pages) long, giving some sort of fascinating hint as to what the city is like with Polo ultimately being unable to truly understand the cities but at least glimpsing their nearly infinite variety and Kublai Khan being unable even to grasp this, not even able to guess where Polo would go next or create a city that Polo had not seen or imagined before. The result is a fascinating book about the problem of cities and of human life as a whole.
Of course, this book does not discuss cities perfectly. There is no discussion here of the New Jerusalem, as all of the cities discussed are flawed cities with human failings, some of them endless cycles of rises and falls, some of them a certain je ne sais quoi that allows them to be remembered by people but ultimately forgotten by the earth. In some of the discussions the author’s displacement of the time of the story in the past allows him to imagine Marco Polo as a prophet telling the future of cities that are seemingly shapeless like Tokyo and Los Angeles and to make some sly jokes about his own future as a prisoner having his stories recorded by the slightly unreliable author of adventure stories who happens to be in the same cell. In some cases, some of the details the author makes have puzzling and humorous resonance the author could not have known about, like his reference to a city where women walk pumas on leashes, which the author may have viewed scenes like the “Starboy” music video where the singer walks a panther of some kind on a leash. Regardless, though, there is much to ponder about and much to enjoy in this book and in its portrayal of cities and their importance to us.