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