Thursday, December 9, 2010

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The poet Elizabeth Bishop once wrote "I lost two cities, lovely ones" and with this line the reader is immediately lost to the reality of the way a city can control us, call to us, demand from us. In Italo Calvino's Invisile Cities we are told of 55 cities. All of them found, but lost. Or, actually, never really built. I never thought of myself as one so absorbed in the presence of a city. But, after reading Invisible Cities, and the line of poetry by Bishop, and the presence of the city of Alexandria in Lawrence Durrell's masterpiece Justine... I am now aware of the significance of city as character in the literature I most enjoy.

The novel is made up of a series of 55 short stories, glimpses at cities as described by the explorer Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. At first this sounds boring. To me, at least. I am not one for historical fiction. But, Invisible Cities is not historical fiction. This is literature by way of experimental fiction mixed with science-fiction. This is a world all to itself. A world of symbols, language, double meaning, and lots of games.

John Donne once said "a man is no island unto himself," but he never said anything about women. In Invisible Cities, Calvino argues a woman is a city unto herself. Each of the 55 cities described by Polo are named after women. As these cities do not exist, are we meant to understand the cities are just descriptions of women Polo has known? Are these complex constructions really just women? Is Invisible Cities a literary praise of all that is feminine? This may be too shallow of a reading, but certainly not without possibility.

On the other hand, Invisible Cities is in every way about fiction. The act of storytelling and the importance of literature. Khan argues with Polo that these stories, as Khan views the tales of these cities as imagination, as a waste of his time. That Khan would rather just see these for himself. This is an argument often stated by those who don't read. By those who would rather do instead of read.

Language and symbols are of the highest importance to Calvino. Throughout the entire novel we are made to understand that Khan and Polo do not speak the same language. Polo tells his stories by using objects. How is the reader to know how Khan interprets these stories through object? And, what about the reader, do we fully understand these tales as handed to us through the symbols of alphabet? Calvino writes about the "signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them." This speaks to the audience and their interpretation. Then, Calvino goes on to write that "the listener retains only the words he is expecting." Again, there will always be a disconnect between two people: the writer, the reader; the painter, the viewer; the speaker, the listener.

In one of Calvino's most playful moments in the novel, he informs the reader the arc of the storyline is about to take place: "Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me" Khan asks after Polo has described a bridge in one of the cities. Polo responds by stating "without stones there is no arch." Without story there is no arc. Without the cities there is no climax. In the next chapter, Polo reveals all of these cities are based upon Venice ("Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice"). The many ways we are able to interpret one thing.

For the past ten years I have wanted to read a Calvino novel. Never finding the right time. But, with Invisible Cities I think I picked not only the right time, but the right novel. Durrell's Justine will always remain my favorite book. But, this experience with Invisible Cities certainly places it as close to number two as a book can get after a first reading.

There are many readings of this novel still to come. And many interpretations left to discover.


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