Monday, 9 July 2012

Review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

(translated by William Weaver)

Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of the cities he has seen on his travels.

                         Canaletto: The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute, 1730

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are opposite impulses: Polo explores, barters, trades, assimilates himself from West to East. The Khan leads his horde from East to West, destroying, sacking, absorbing. Yet it is mercantile Polo not conquering Kublai who most threatens the individuality of the cities he describes. The Khan is fascinated by the extent and variability of his empire, Marco Polo by the extent to which all of the world is the same.

                                         Machinarium, Amanita Designs, 2009

The cities Marco Polo describes are ethereal, shimmering visions, ideas rather than architectural structures or social bodies. The ideas, sometimes, are brilliant, revelatory, haunting, sharp hard gemstones that inhabit Polo's dusty, footweary haze. Often they are flat, subsumed by the dustcloud, mirages that never reveal themselves as actual oases.

                                                  M.C. Escher: Waterfall, 1961

Marco Polo (Italo Calvino?) is anxious about being (mis)understood. He acknowledges the language barrier between him and Kublai Khan. He must describe using sign language and yelping and the symbolism of a chess set. Somehow he is at his most effective when he cannot be precise. The cities live and breathe when they are given space. Calvino sows the seeds of imagination, but the reader has to nurture them.

                                         Las Vegas Airport

A helpful contrast can be seen in comparison with such city-chronicles as The Wire or Ulysses or a Dickens novel. Calvino has no interest in actually describing a city. His title is characteristically misleading, yet absolutely accurate. These cities are invisible. They are un-visible: they can never be visible, or visualised. They are ghosts.

                                         A view over Pompeii

Marco Polo is not a traveller through space. Or, not a traveller through space alone. He is, in Kublai Khan's wonderful phrase, a smuggler of elegy. He travels the pathways of memory and futurity and mortality.

                Biagio d'Antonio da Firenze, 1476-1504/15, The Siege of Troy: The Wooden Horse

Calvino's cities are linguistic. They are, because of this, mutable, fragmentary, incommunicable. Yet some of his words combine to form a pattern that expresses, for a few short sentences, an idea that seems profound and unbearable. The rest are not quite as terrifying or beautiful.

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