By: Italo Calvino
Città reali scomposte e trasformate in chiave onirica, e città simboliche e surreali che diventano archetipi moderni in un testo narrativo che raggiunge i vertici della poeticità.
“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images.
I’ve had two of Italo Calvino’s books sitting on my shelf for some time now in both English and Italian, Le citta invisibili being the second of the books I picked up. I decided to read this book first (before If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller) because I heard how different this novel was and how interesting the descriptions of the cities were; I’m also reading this novel as part of the I Love Italy reading challenge that I’m participating in. What I didn’t expect from this novel was how there is so much more going on than just mere descriptions. Contains a few spoilers ahead!
Upon finishing the novel, I found myself wondering how to go about writing a review about it. I have to agree with a user on GoodReads who mentioned that it’s hard to describe this novel. There isn’t much of a plot to this novel: the basic premise is that Marco Polo is describing cities that he’s visited to Kublai Khan. Each city, unique with its own defining traits, is presented in a chapter of its own, with only segments appearing every six chapters or so containing dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo.
On the one hand, it’s really about the cities. No two cities are the same; some of them feel familiar (sometimes I found myself wondering whether the city that Marco Polo is describing is Venice itself or whether it’s a more modern city that Italo Calvino would know of) while others are just fantastical and unique. The descriptions are evocative and makes me wish that this novel was a picture book instead because it would be fantastic to see these cities visually (although imagining them is just as fun!). I wish the description at the back of my Vintage copy did not mention that all of the cities that Marco Polo conveyed to the khan were in fact describing different facets of Venice because it would’ve made for an interesting surprise. Looking back on some of the cities, they did in fact describe certain elements of Venice, particularly the watery walkways. I can’t say whether I have a favourite city from all of the descriptions because I just loved the way that they were all described!
On the other hand, this book is about life. That sounds a little exaggerated, but it’s true: alongside the physical descriptions about the cities, there are also descriptions about the types of people who inhabit the cities and the particular customs and ways of life that they espouse. These ways of living also touches more fundamental aspects of human life, whether it be about life and death, about the passage of time or about the subject of memory. It’s this aspect of the novel that makes it a bit more difficult to describe the novel as a whole because it reflects on all of these different themes in a lyrical manner. Even Marco Polo’s expeditions across the khan’s empire and beyond is a reflection of the journey of life in general.
Overall, Invisible Cities is a remarkable experience. Sure, it is not your typical novel with a plot and character development but it’s a wonderful reflection about life and aspects of the human experience. The descriptions and Calvino’s narrative were just wonderful and rich; I have far too many favourite quotes from this novel. There’s just no other way to describe this novel but I would highly recommend this novel to everyone, it was a joy to read it.