Monday, April 11, 2011

Invisible Cities

Sometimes Owl is tempted to wander down the open road with a loaf of bread, a bit of cheese, and a few stamped postcards knotted up in a kerchief. She dreams of cities that sparkle in the sunlight, cities covered in dust, the wide open spaces between cities, and the endless road. Unfortunately whenever she tries, she is plagued with worries about running out of bread, worries about rain because kerchiefs don’t do wet so well, so she turns around and goes home for some strawberry-banana-chocolate sandwiches and a book.

Owl has three modes of reading. In the first mode she drags herself through a book because she wants to impress people with her literary curriculum vitae. (See Mark Twain, see also J.R.R. Tolkien who should be castrated for the Two Towers). Owl admits this is a terrible thing to do, but she reads copious amounts of comic books to atone. In the second mode she’s picked up some delicious escapism, done a serious face plant into the paper and is dead to the world for the next forty eight hours. (See anything by Diana Wynne Jones.) When she emerges she walks into a lot of walls and is woozy. In the third mode, in the third mode, call the cops, put the ambulances on hold and bring out the parachutes because Owl tasted the sublime, Owl’s heart cracked open and spilled across the grass, Owl just hit the sky and is wheeling about in a flaming ball of ecstasy and she’s never, never coming back.

Enter Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, full of twinkling cities and decadent prose. Owl may have teared up reading it. Teared up because it’s good like that first bite of double chocolate cake frosted with an inch of fudge ganache. Yeah. That good.

 Owl isn’t even going to try to write a synopsis. She’ll let Gore Vidal do the talking:

In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo. The mood is sunset. Prospero is holding up for the last time his magic wand: Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire, of his cities, of himself.

Marco Polo, however, diverts the emperor with tales of cities that he has seen within the empire and Kublai Khan listens, searches for a pattern in Marco Polo’s Cities and memory, Cities and desire, Cities and signs…The emperor soon determines that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.

To read Invisible Cities is to visit the most fabulous cities on earth, cities named after beautiful women, cities whose descriptions are one paged prose poems that read like love affairs. Some of them are sweet and frothy, some of the dark and twisted, all of them are glorious. Skim through the descriptions and you will reel from the beauty of the prose. Savor them slowly and you will discover hidden truths about the curious creatures that are cities, about the lone traveler who chooses to wander from place to place.

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave; the houses are dismantled; only the strings and the supports remain.

Invisible Cities ought to be boring, a book of fifty odd cities broken up by dialog between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, and to be honest, reading it is like traveling for a long long time. At first every sight in every city is precious, something to marvel over. Then the details of each city blur together, the cities begin to blur, you only notice what is so novel that it is beyond the scope of your imagination, or what is so familiar you nearly drown in homesickness. In doing this, you will begin to understand the place you came from, and see how it shaped you. This is the only way to learn these lessons of self and homeland.

Read Calvino. Read him to travel to wonderful cities, to dream as you've never dreamed before, and to discover the invisible city that lies inside of you. When you eventually surface in your living room, you will be exhausted and exhilerated, you will be irrevocably changed.

Searching for invisible cities


  1. I will read it <3

  2. this is the kind of engagement-with-book i most like to read. it gives, not so much plot, characterization, theme, but qualities, effects, perceptions. it gives the adventure of the book. the reader expresses what that reader alone experiences in a work.

  3. So well written, I like how you compared the reading of the cities with the experience of visiting a city-- how all is novel at first then the differences between them blur.