Title: Invisible Cities
Author: Italo Calvino
Translator: William Weaver
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Date: 2019 (1972)
Summary: As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvellous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take
Italo Calvino’s books are always weird and wonderful and Invisible Cities was no different. I adored reading this because Calvino has this ability to transport me into whatever world he has created and it was such an immersive reading experience for me. A quick note about the translator: William Weaver was a well-known English language translator of modern Italian literature and he translated several works by Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Primo Levi.
The book is set out as a series of tales or short stories told by Marco Polo. He’s describing various (fictitious) cities to Kublai Khan and many of the tales can be read meditations on human nature, culture, language, and death. Every so often, the city descriptions are broken up by dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan and the frame narrative helps create a sense of continuity within the and it emphasises Marco Polo’s storytelling. Calvino indulges in metafiction in such a beautiful, creative way in this novel.
Calvino is deliberately deconstructing the travelogue, a form of travel literature which is like a travel diary, and Invisible Cities draws up The Travels of Marco Polo, the travelogue that Marco Polo wrote in the thirteenth century. I love Calvino’s response to the original text and I think it’s a beautiful reimagining of Marco Polo’s work in Calvino’s distinct style. Calvino isn’t attempting to mimic the original and he isn’t trying to mock or deride it either. He’s just drawing inspiration and building upon an already fascinating text. You can definitely read this without delving into the writing of Marco Polo though so don’t worry about that!
Both the writing style and the form of the book can be a little bit odd at times but, for me, that adds to the dream-like, whimsical nature of the book. It’s all very surreal but also carefully constructed. I think it’s a beautiful work of literature and I found it fascinating.
I added some quotes from Invisible Cities to my commonplace book and I realise that they make zero sense out of context (and possible even within the context of the book because that’s just Calvino’s style) but I wanted to share two short ones here:
But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, Zora has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.
Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.
I think these quotes give you a sense of Calvino’s style and the ideas he explores within the book. Or, at least, I hope they do.
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1. A page from The Travels of Marco Polo (Il Milione) by Marco Polo (c.1298-1299)