Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Invisible Cities / Italo Calvino
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Thursday, 18 March 1999
With special thanks to Tim Meadowcroft.

A strange, fantastic book, Invisible Cities describes dialogues between Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler, and Kublai Khan, the oriental emperor. It has no plot as such — no beginning, no development of characters (no characters, for that matter, except for the two mentioned above) — but it does have a sad, bittersweet ending.

The book can probably be classified as “post-modern”, and Calvino’s writing can only be described as surrealistic. Trying to actually describe the book is a frustrating, almost futile attempt; I’ll give it a try anyway.

Khan expresses his tiredness of the stories brought to him by his messengers across the empire. Only the stories told by Polo, of the cities that he met during his travels, keep him interested.

(From the book) From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.

Even though Khan insists, Polo never talks about his own city, Venice. He only talks about strange, magical, invisible cities that nobody else ever saw.

And yet, Khan cannot avoid the feeling that by telling him about those nonexistent places, Polo does describe, bit by bit, the city they both really think of.

(From the book) This was the city of Zobeide, where they settled, waiting for that scene to be repeated one night. None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman again. The city’s streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten.

The book consists of fifty-five extremely short city descriptions, embedded within an intellectual duel between Polo and Khan.

Despite its brevity, the book takes days to read — at least, when read properly. After each story you have to stop; to think; to contemplate on the piece of poetry-in-prose that you have just encountered. Many a story hits a nerve. For me it was impossible, after such stories, just to turn the page and read on.

(From the book) New men arrived from other lands, having had a dream like theirs, and in the city of Zobeide, they recognized something of the streets of the dream, and they changed the positions of arcades and stairways to resemble more closely the path of the pursued woman and so, at the spot where she had vanished, there would remain no avenue of escape.

The first to arrive could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.

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Mark Pengilley writes:
I keep returning to read Invisible Cities because of its contemplative nature. Reading becomes like the book itself and the description Calvino gives of how Kublai Khan and Marco Polo communicate ''most of the time they remained silent and immobile.''
[301] Posted on Sunday, 25 May 2008 at 12:55 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Joseph Pennino writes:
invisible cities - calvinoJ
Invisible Cities is so utterly Calvino sometimes I want to throw his books across the room... This one is as you describe, a set of prose poems. I found myself tabulating the number of bracketed opposites, oxymoronic phrases, listing the names of the cities, turning the text this way and that. Calvino delinearizes time, de-dimensions space. The saving grace for me reading this book, is that I have read some of his others and I taught If On a Winter's Night a Travel in a HS honors class, so I know how utterly, absolutely non conformist he can be. Calvino is Italy's answer to Joyce's Finnegan's Wake only better.
[425] Posted on Tuesday, 13 October 2009 at 19:17 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

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