Review of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
By: Michael A. Arnold

I sat on the Dogana's steps

For the gondolas cost too much, that year,

And there were not "those girls", there was one face,

And the Buccentoro twenty yards off, howling, "Stretti",

And the lit cross–beams, that year, in the Morosini,

And peacocks in Koré's house, or there may have been.

––––––––––Gods float in the azure air,

Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed.

From Canto 3 by Ezra Pound


When I read the quote above I could almost hear Venice. Has that ever happened to you? There is something in, or even between the words that makes you 'feel' the heat of the midday sun — or 'hear' the sound of the dogana's wood creaking as it tilts unsteadily in the water. A piece of writing can make you imagine another place so clearly that it can feel like your own memories.

It can actually be hard to remember that these are places where ordinary people actually live. In Dickens' Pictures of Italy he describes Venice as being almost dreamlike, as if it was so beautiful, he could not really take it in – completely different from the intimacy in that quote from Ezra Pound above. People who actually live in Venice are probably so used to the city they see other sides to it too, alongside the more touristy places — and, in reality, everyone's experiences of Venice will be different, even if it's only slight. We are all individuals, and how we feel from one day to the next is not ever totally consistent.

This is the central theme of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The version being reviewed here was translated by William Weaver, and published in 1997 by Vintage. It is a novel, or apparently a novel, but it is better to think of this book as a series of fables, or prose poems, with a framing device rather than a plot. The plot is very simple, the traveler Marco Polo arrives at the court of the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan, and when asked where he came from Marco start telling the emperor of many strange cities he has seen in his wonderings cross the world.

A lot of the time, when people read a novel they are reading it for a story, or because they find pleasure in what it offers. Perhaps people read horror novels because they like being scared, or perhaps like reading fantasy because they offer an escape from the world. Other people might read literature because it helps us to understand the world around us better. Ultimately a novel is an experience, one that often is outside of the reader's own day to day life. People might not often talk about how a book 'feels', or read a book just to find a mood quite as much. Invisible Cities is a book with a mood — and it is an extremely peaceful reading experience. As the pages go by, and the strange cities that Marco Polo describes come and go, the book almost feels like a kind of meditation that is making sense more unconsciously than consciously. There is perhaps no better way to describe what reading this book cover to cover is like than saying it is a deeply soothing read, if you get into it. Like Dickens' description of Venice, reading this book can feel almost dreamlike, as dreamlike as the cities the book describes.

The places Marco Polo describes are varied and wild, to the point of being impossible. There is a description of a city where the people live in one sector until they fill up where they live with so much rubbish they need to move into the next sector, and when that sector is full they move onto the next, and so on and so on – forever moving around this one settlement. There is another city built in the clouds, attached to the earth with huge flamingo legs because the people who live there hate everything below them. There is another where some kind of magic is at work to make everything the person inside sees beautiful but it is illusory, thinly covering a more sad reality. On a first reading all of them can seem to be completely outlandish and random, following more of a kind of surrealist logic, like something out of Gulliver's Travels, than anything that could ever actually exist in the real world.

But these cities are not as random as might first appear, and the same names might be used a for apparently different places – such as Zaria which is first described as a city of rising stairways, where past and future seem to morph together, then when Zaria is mentioned again it is instead somewhere that appears to change depending on who is in it. The implication is that these are different places, but the reality is ultimately more complex.

The cities described are always changing, and never really feel like real places because they are all metaphors, highlighting different flaws in the human condition. Many, if not all, of the cities described also seem to reference historical people — one particularly memorable passage describes a city called Hypatia which holds a huge library with philosophers in residence, but the city is also described being a harsh place, with punishments for criminals that would not be out of place in Inferno — the first part of Dante's The Divine Comedy. This city Hypatia has some connection with the real life Hypatia of Alexandra, who was a brilliant philosopher living in the 4th century AD, and who taught Neo–Platonism at the famous Library of Alexandria, but was sadly tortured and killed after she was declared a witch by Coptic Christians.

There is probably a lot to be said around how most (if not all) of the cities with links to real, historical people in this book are female names. Human beings have often gendered things and cities in this way; it is even a fundamental grammatical feature of most European languages, like Italian, the language this book was originally written in. There could be very interesting material here for a feminist analysis perhaps, exploring the kind of relationship people have with where they live – because it becomes increasingly clear as we read through the book, and which the emperor Kublai Khan himself points out at the end, Marco Polo is actually just describing one city that he obviously knew well: he is talking (always talking) about Venice, and talking about it allegorically through all the different places he invents.

It should not be forgotten that Marco Polo himself was from Venice, and for him to spend his life wondering the world — and then (in this book) to talk about nothing he has seen along the way — only ever talking about the place he was born is very telling. In a sense, then, Marco Polo is in this book like Odysseus forever wondering the Mediterranean — fighting monsters and meeting strange people, but his mind is always going back to his home. Perhaps unconsciously, where we come from creates our 'normal' — it is what we use as a reference to judge everything we will ever see in life. What does that mean about our personal relationships to our own places, our own homes? These are questions without answers, in a way, because they will be so personal to each individual person, but they are important questions to ask ourselves all the same. What does 'home' really mean to us?

In many ways this book is not really about Venice — it is about the human condition. In other ways it is about nothing but Venice, and the two things contrast with each other. I think, though, this tension is trying to suggest that Venice as a symbol is something of what we all fundamentally want in life. Venice is both a city and a symbol of beauty and culture – and all want fulfillment in our lives, we all want to be happy, and in a way to get outside of ourselves for a while. We are all Marco Polos in some way, we all have made our own journeys, and we all deserve to be heard, and we as human beings tend to tell or stories through allegory because that makes it more universal. That is, fundamentally, why human beings tell each other stories — both to entertain each other, and to express what in normal language might be inexpressible. This book is a great reminder of all that.