Friday, June 19, 2009
By Italo Calvino, William Weaver, translator
Harcourt, Inc.; $13.00, paper
Italo Calvino’s magical book, Invisible Cities is literary achievement. Part fantasy travelogue, part philosophical discussion, and all together a must-read, the book posits a discussion between Kublai Khan, emperor of the Tartans, and the young Venetian explorer, Marco Polo. The topic: the cities Marco Polo has explored, or one city in many forms.
These explorations include cities of memory, of desire, trading cities, thin cities, cities of the sky, continuous cities. The result is a deeply engaging work of literature that pushes past the limits of the novel. In between these illuminating descriptions of foreign locales, Calvino treats his readers to the dialogue between these men, one in the midst of his career, the other in decline, believing his empire to be in ruins.
“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions,” Calvino begins his story. But Khan listens more intently to Polo, the lure of the description is the lure of story. He brings his two historical characters together, gathering them to the fire for a series of late night conversations. “There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening,” he writes, “with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres…It is the desperate moment when we discover that his empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin…” The language is a litany of images and ethereal description. The writing is simply masterful and intense.
Each chapter is an explanation and description of another city. For instance, “Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors.” In the city of Isidora, “desires are already memories.”
There is the city of Anastasia with its concentric canals and kites flying over it. The city of Tamara, with “streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.” Yes, Tamara is a city of symbols.
Along the way, Calvino breaks for philosophical dialogue between the two men. When the Khan asks the purpose of journeys—to relive the past or to recover the future—Marco Polo has an answer. “The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
These interludes function as the dialogue of life—why are we here? What is the purpose of our life’s journey? What do we hope to find? In the end, are not all journeys internal and external, discovering what is inside us as much as what exists in the world?
The Khan notices that Polo’s descriptions resemble each other. So he tries a new tactic: “From now on I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I conceived them.” They do exist because the traveler inevitably goes in search of something, and he finds that for which he is searching. “With cities, it is as with dreams,” Calvino writes. “Everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
Marco Polo eventually admits that all his described cities are one city: Venice, his home. When the Khan marvels at this, and questions why all of these places are really one place, Polo states that he is afraid of losing the city he loves, therefore by integrating the canals, the water, the architecture into the magical places he has visited, he preserves Venice in his mind. But he is still worried. “Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”
We travel to find ourselves, to know our world as we learn the world inside of us. Some say the mind is the last frontier of exploration, and Marco Polo would probably agree. His journeys to other lands in this book are about discovering what is inside his mind as much as discovering what is in the world.
The last dialogue is an examination of the Khan’s atlas. We have seen the maps of places known in the world, of places lost, of places yet to be discovered, and finally, the places of imagination and fiction: Utopia, Atlantis, the City of the Sun. The final place is the infernal city of “ever-narrowing circles” This is the Inferno of Dante. But Marco Polo believes that this place is not where we will go after we die; he believes that if there is an Inferno, it is “where we live every day…There are two ways to escape suffering it,” Polo states. “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.” In the end, that is what we must find in the invisible cities of our imaginations.