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Book Review: Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino

This is the kind of book you can only find as a translation, because North American Western culture revolts at the very idea of books that have no stories in them.


Italo Calvino was a widely respected writer of novels, short fiction, journalism, and even operas, born to Italian parents in Cuba in 1923. Because he was not American, he wasn't bound by the same American conventions that often plague and restrict letters as an art form. Calvino's writing is all expression, all imagery, pure art unadulterated by the need for plot structure or logical chains of events. It's the kind of writing you can only find beyond the jealously defended borders of North American Western culture. And it is spectacular.


All of Calvino's works are fantastic and well worth reading, but I particularly love Invisible Cities. The premise and plot of this novella are thin, almost to the point of non-existence, and please note that this is not a criticism, but rather praise. The book centers around a series of conversations between Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, and the explorer Marco Polo. Kublai's reign is coming to an end, and there is some sad desperation in his words and his presence on the page; he is seeking comfort or escape or validation in the many tales Marco Polo recounts to him, all brief and mysterious stories of cities Polo has seen on his travels around the world.


If you are expecting plot and structure, look elsewhere. This isn't the book for you. But if you appreciate books that are truly experiences, this is one you can't pass up. Calvino (translated by William Weaver) creates scores of vivid images--momentary snapshots of cities and civilizations, each with their own character and feel. Early in the book, each city Polo describes has a suitably late-thirteenth-century feel. But as the novella progresses, the cityscapes become dreamscapes, and it becomes clear that Marco Polo has journeyed not only around the planet in his own time, but across barriers of time, truth, and dimension. One city holds post-Industrial-Revolution factories, spewing soot into the air. In another, a motorcycle passes by. One city is built on a net of rope suspended over a chasm between two mountain peaks; the inhabitants are waiting for the ropes to give way and their city to fall. One city is constructed over a waveless lake, so everything that happens in it is reflected on the surface of the water, and the two cities look at one another but do not love each other.


As you wander the pages like an explorer yourself, you can no longer tell where the boundary lies between history and fantasy, or the past and the present, or the past and the future. All you can do is feel the mood in every new location, and wonder why each city is the way it is.


I wish this kind of book were more widely accepted in Western literature. Sometimes it's nice to leave all considerations of plot and story and causality behind, and simply allow words to be a medium for creating image and mood. Italo Calvino used words the way painters use paint and brushes: to make an image, to capture an emotion and fix it permanently into place, to be revisited later and to be transformed and recontextualized by the return of the viewer to the scene. He wasn't just writing; he was making art. Enjoy it for what it is.



Illutration: "Octavia" by artist Rebecca Chappell, inspired by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

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