Saturday, 14 July 2012

Invisible Cities

At the End of Five Days' Journey,
You Begin to Discover a Few Towns
Built Upon Rocky Heights

Nora Sturges

Prompted by Sam Vega’s reliable enthusiasm, I recently downloaded a copy of Invisible Cities onto my Kindle, a novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino.

It’s a short, lyrical novel, almost a prose poem really. A strange imaginary tour of fifty five imaginary cities, all with female names. The only characters are explorer Marco Polo and emperor Kublai Khan. Every now and then, interspersed between poetic descriptions of the cities, there are conversations between the two men. At first, because they do not speak the same language, Marco Polo has to describe the cities via an extempore sign language and whatever props come to hand.

There is no language without deceit.

However, the imaginary cities are not from Kublai Khan’s time, but a dreamlike mix of ancient and modern from the aroma of sandalwood fires and camel dung to aluminium towers and a strange city of exposed modern plumbing and one with no exterior from which you may never find your way out.

It’s a hotch potch of images, yet nothing is unknown to the reader. Calvino’s materials are our materials. In his cities he shows to us nothing we could not have built ourselves from our own imagination, our own materials.

Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall where.

As a novel it’s all very odd, if wonderfully lyrical and poetically persuasive. It is divisive too, because judging by Amazon reviews, many readers don’t get on with the lack of a plot and the fact nothing actually happens.

What’s it about then?

I agree with Sam – it’s about memory. This eerie and quite haunting novel seems to offer the intriguing insight that the future is built from our memories of the past. In a sense, we remember the future as we encounter it and in so doing create new pasts and new futures. So past and future are both mutable. But touch them, cast them into words and we lose them. This is a theme of the novel, because Marco Polo has to cast his city tales into words for Kublai Khan - as does Calvino for us of course.

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps 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.”

Some possibilities within our memories are realised in the future, most are not and many never could be because they are dreams, mingled impressions, fancies and fantastical stories like those of Marco Polo.

But there is more, such as the impact of words and labels and the way these change memories and possibilities. The best way to bring all this out may well be lyrical prose, a release of the imagination where you can smell the leather bags of tobacco, the embers of a sandalwood fire, camel dung and a hint of exotic promise from high windows in sun-baked walls.

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 old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.”

It’s a book one should probably read more than once, because of course reading it changes things too – the past and the future.

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.


Sam Vega said...

Glad you read it!

I'm also glad that you chose to quote the final lines of the book - about the inferno.

As well as a tangential reference to Dante, these beautiful lines are for me what gives the book a final sense of moral depth. Without them, and the emotion they represent, it could have easily slipped into being yet another slippery little po-mo book about reality and imagination.

I like everything that Calvino has written. He seems to have been a genuinely good man.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I was quite surprised by the last lines because I hadn't picked up a moral message from the rest of it.

But of course that may be the message, which was also Spinoza's message. First we have to understand the seductive nature of surface realities. I shall probably read more - there seem to be a number in Kindle format.

James Higham said...

Lyrical prose is more the fashion, poetry seemingly having had its day.

A K Haart said...

James - yes, you won't get rich writing poetry.