Invisible Cities

ISBN: 0099429837
ISBN 13: 9780099429838
By: Italo Calvino William Weaver

Check Price Now


Classics Currently Reading Fantasy Favorites Fiction Italian Literature Magical Realism Short Stories To Read

About this book

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. 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 marvelous 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.

Reader's Thoughts


Membership in Goodreads has its requirements, and I'd have to turn in my badge if I didn't post something on the late-century grandmaster Calvino. INVISIBLE CITIES emerges as the one to celebrate, though he never wrote a loser, and I'd never have a library without COSMICOMICS or THE BARON IN THE TREES. Still, CITIES is the one that's laid out songlines across all the continents of reading. By some miracle of imagination, Calvino pulls off both a form no one had ever seen before and a structure that feels classic. He presents conversations at twilight, always a setting alive with suggestion, and moreso when you consider the participants, namely, the wandering Marco Polo and his stay-at-home host, the Great Khan. Yet the merchant has the advantage over the emperor; he knows the far-flung cities of the Khanate. Thus by far the majority of Calvino's story -- a story-surrogate? -- is given over to dazzling one- or two-page portraits of these cities, their names ranging from Adelma to Zoe, their idiosyncrasies unparalleled in fiction. Shadows loom of timeless human dilemmas, in particular desire and the death that comes with its quenching, and the cityscapes also make room for contemporary urban threats and hardships, from overpopulation to sprawl (troubles heightened in the fragile infrastructure of Italian cities). Yet the vitality always scoots free of the thudding bootheels of Significance, and even the scariest trip downtown offers a kind of charm, the best kind, raw and head-clearing. All in all it's an experience of spacey mathematics and freethinking rigor, and though now 35 years old, still the most winning latter-day recalibration of novel-length narrative. Its influence can be felt fiction of every language, and its transcendence can open any mind wider, at any time.


My first read from Calvino. He take you into dreamy landscapes and transports you to picturesque cities. Fifty-five prose pieces each describe a different fabulous city and each contains a conceptual or philosophical puzzle or enigma. Cities that change according to moods and others moulded on the memories of the citizens. I have changed rating to one more as the images are some how still locked in my psyche somehow.


All the spaces we inhabit are in some way our dreams. All the spaces we pass through are composed by our subjective perceptions for us as much as they are composed of the objective material that works on those perceptions. All spaces hold and reflect something of ourselves, our histories. I sit in my carefully arranged room composing this piece on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; I am seated in a comfortable chair, it is arranged below a window that lets in copious light in the mornings and afternoons, to better aid my reading and my writing, it is within leg’s reach of my bed, on which I rest my legs, and my laptop sits comfortably on my thighs, and being that my room is a converted attic with walls painted white and few decorations, I enjoy, in pauses between spans of typing, watching the late afternoon light play on the white walls with its brightness and shadows over the angular lines that used to delineate where the roof rose; the ceiling slopes at strong angles, there is a skylight above my bed that I generally keep covered, that during storms resounds with a soothing percussive patter. The only decoration on my walls is a block print of a human heart that means a great deal to me. It hangs adjacent to the west facing window, which catches light later than the windows behind me, which are south-easterly. Books run along my walls and rest in stacks beside my bed, a record player and stereo are directly to my left, on a kind of shelf, and records and books cascade here and there. This is my space, I have lived in it for years, I have made it mine, it is an outward projection of my interior; I have attempted to make the walls show their stark angles more strikingly by not cluttering them with decoration; I have placed my clothes carefully away and set my possessions in a pleasant order so that there are fewer obstructions to my thinking and motion; my bed is positioned so the south-easterly morning light does not interfere with my sleeping; the lamp is within arm’s reach of the bed; the only picture on my wall is of a heart a loved one gave me. This room is as much my interior as my exterior, it suits all of my physical and psychic needs, the form it has taken is a reflection of some pattern determined within my being, almost without my being aware of it. Our exteriors, the things we inhabit and therefore influence and change by our thoughts, efforts, ambitions, are changed in accordance with interior demands, interior desires, interior longings, hopes, etc. It is the same for streets, cities, countries. The interior lives of the inhabitants of these places create the exteriors that they then exist within, shop in, shuffle about, fight, make love, laugh and die in. The physical world is a creation of the conscious and unconscious intentions of the human imagination, an agglomeration of all human hopes, drives, desires, made into a material reality.So everything imaginable is realizable; and whether it is realizable in concrete, in steel, in glass, in brick, in flesh, or whether it is only realizable in images, words, pictures, pixels, is of little difference. A perfectly constructed sentence, a perfectly rendered painting, a perfectly filmed scene, a perfect cascade of musical tones- they are manifest realizations of ideas. All is possible that one can imagine if one can speak it, draw it, compose it. The limitations of the architect, the city-planner, the foreman can be realized by the artist, the writer, the photographer. The human imagination is infinite, and every iteration, every form, is in some way achievable.Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a document of these ideas; it is a proof, in perfectly constructed, astoundingly deep and evocative sentences, that whatever we dream can be and will be fulfilled. That just two souls, sitting in a garden, outside of time and within it, their lips fixed to pipe stems, watching smoke trails’ shifting patterns ascend the sky and exchanging mere words, can invent a universe; and that the universe of the living which is the source and inspiration for their visions can be rendered into symbols that can then supersede, magnify, illuminate, and reorder that living world into something that speaks to and connects very deeply with the hidden currents and vibrations of what it is to be a thinking, desiring, dreaming human being. This is a profound book, one of those rare works where nothing seems missing or superfluous, where every sentence locks into a kind of crystalline totality, an affirmation of the vital importance and sovereignty of works of the imagination.”The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.”-pg. 139”Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”-pg. 29”’I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others,’ Marco answered. ‘It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist. But I cannot force my operations beyond a certain limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real.’”-pg. 69"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension; seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."-pg. 165


intinya, manusia itu pencari kepastian. tanpa kepastian manusia hidup dalam gelisah. seperti kematian. kepastian apa setelah mati? iya kalau surga neraka itu ada. kalau tak ada? manusia tak mau hidupnya dikerjai. mereka menamainya teka-teki. beberapa malas menjawab teka-tekinya. sebagian tidak. salah satunya adalah italo calvino dalam kota-kota imajiner ciptaannya ini.italo menulis dengan rasionalitas yang penuh irasional. ia bongkar pasang apa yang dinamakan KOTA. ia kunyah setiap pertanyaan dan detail. ia bongkar makna kota sehingga tidak tahu lagi maknanya. tapi ia tidak menolaknya. kota bentukan italo menggantikan posisi keyakinan. bahwa kota adalah sekumpulan pikir. tetapi juga sekelumpulan sampah, binatang, dan jembatan. yang jangan-jangan, sekarang sudah menjadi tuhan.seperti saya yang terjebak dalam JAKARTA. saya hanya tahu keberangkatan. sehingga lupa akan sebuah kepulangan. sublim dan subtil. katanya.


Calvino's Invisible Cities is more a chronicle of linked prose poetry than it is a novel. Marco Polo, the Scheherazadean narrator, tells Kublai Khan about the fifty-five (is it really only that many?) of impossibly imaginative cities which he has encountered along his travels. Whether cities of the dead, or continuous cities, or what-have-you, every city has some element of the paradoxical, or the impossible and irrational. This Borgesian labyrinth of falsity mixed with truth is gripping. And though each city is a lie, each city, too, holds a kernel of some deeper truth about life - and isn't that what literature is all about? Truth through falsity?And our lives are expanded through falsities and half-truths and unknowables. Every person we meet, every thing we see, everything we hear, expands our consciousness and adds value to our lives. It's how we compile these sensory experiences that defines our lives, that makes a "heaven out of hell, or a hell out of heaven," so to speak. Perspective is the flavor of life and no two people have the same tastes. But can we have more tastes than one? I suspect a good novelist can taste life through a number of different perspectives than their own, which makes fiction so appealing to us, every book a new flavor, a new perspective: getting closer to that singular truth.For Marco Polo, the singular truth at the heart of Invisible Cities is the one city which he really knows, which he really loves, which to him is everything: Venice. At one and the same time, he seems to know everything about Venice, yet seems also to be doggedly search for the heart of it; has it firmly in his grasp, yet is ceaselessly losing it: “Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” Perhaps he is losing it piece by piece because city by imaginary city he is uncovering it. The mystery which remained for him in Venice, which he hoped to preserve, he loses little by little in getting at the truth of the illusory metropolises of his mind. When you escape into a good book, the world falls away from you, you are transported, but when you return the world is not quite the way it was before: there is a different color to the sunlight, a different touch to your bedsheets, a different feel of the wind at your back on a hot summer day. Something is added to your appreciation of the world you live in: but maybe not - maybe it is that something is taken away, some barrier torn down, some dust wiped away, which makes your vision clearer.


Marco Polo : Now I shall tell you of the beautiful city of Nottingham where the buildings are made mostly of blue glass, onyx and sausagemeat. The men of the city trade in fur, spices and photographs of each other with their respective spouses. All the men have large phalluses, sometimes so large they must cut pieces out of the tops of their front doors before they can exit their houses in the morning. This is a city of dreamers and anthropophagi, of astronomers and chess players, all with the largest of phalluses. The women of the city are the most voluptuous and lively. They wear clothes. Many times I have observed them gambolling and performing handsprings for sheer joy of being in Nottingham. The dogs of Nottingham are all sly and well-read. They play canasta and billiards mostly, but also trade junk bonds and enjoy swapping photographs of the men of Nottingham with their respective spouses. But describing the cats of Nottingham will tax me to the very limit of my powers, O mighty Lord -Kublai Khan : One moment, Sr. Polo. You will see the sun is high. I must now bathe in Turkish Delight and oxtail soup. We will recommence in the cool of the evening.Marco Polo : I await your pleasure, my Lord.Kublai Khan to his chief fixer the Grand Weirdo of All The Kingdoms : Later this afternoon I wish you to tell Sr Marco I have died.

Ian Paganus

Hidden Cities * 6You once asked me to describe Venice, and I told you that, every time I described a city, I was saying something about Venice. That was only partly true. In a way, I told you everything I knew about Venice, and nothing.The truth is that when we first met, I barely knew Venice, its buildings, its canals, its gardens, its squares, its people. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. Let me explain why. Do you know how old I was when I first left Venice with my father and uncle? Six! I returned nine years later, and departed again for China within two years. In all, I had just eight years to picture my city. The truth is, I know your city and this garden better than I know my home, if that is what it is.It’s true, I was saying something about Venice. I was defining what it was not. If I could describe cities that were exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions, then I hoped that what would remain would be the rule, the essence, and perhaps that essence would be Venice. If I could describe everything that was impossible, improbable, even too probable, then what would be left would be real, and what was real would be Venice, at least for me.This was my desire. I had no memory to speak of. There was nothing to be nostalgic about. I did not have words. I didn’t have things. I had only images of things. Admittedly, they were childish images in my mind. Besides, they were not many. They were mainly images of our family home: our garden, our kitchen, my bedroom. Little more. I was afraid that, if I put these images into words, I would lose them. I reserved words for everything else. I kept them for things that needed signs. My images of Venice didn’t need signs. They were emblems in their own right.I hoped these images of when I was six or 17 would form a kernel around which my dreams of Venice would grow. As I experienced other cities, as I dreamed of invisible cities, what I learned would not supplant these images. It would grow around them and protect and preserve them. My images would be both contained and concealed. They would be emblems within emblems.In this way, I hoped that my images would not languish, that they would not disintegrate, that they would not disappear. I hoped that I would not forget them. Most of all, though, I was trying to preserve objects, things. Not words, phrases, metaphors. In the absence of words, I couldn’t utilise language, and if I couldn’t utilise language, I couldn’t communicate with you. For you to know Venice, you would have to see it for yourself, and I knew there was little prospect of your leaving your Court.There was a time when I thought you might wish to visit Venice. If I made it seem alluring, you might desire it. If I made it seem powerful, you might fear it, so much so that you would have to wrestle its power from it. I was relieved when you said, “I have neither desires nor fears.”I preserved Venice from and for you without words. I hoped not to deceive you in doing so. There is no language without deceit. Conversely, there is no deceit without language.Words work by way of distinctions. Words distinguish things from each other. I was trying to describe many cities for your edification. To distinguish these cities’ qualities, it’s true, I had to speak of a first city that would remain implicit. I told you that city was Venice. It had to remain implicit, because I lacked the knowledge or the will or the ability to make it explicit. Instead, I invented cities like Esmeralda and Phyllis that contained canals and boats and barges, so that you could imagine your own Venice.The irony is that you think of Venice more than I do. As fond of it as I am, I try to think of it as little as possible. If I dwelled on it, I’d worry that it would turn into words, and if it turned into words, then, as I’ve said, it might vanish.I wish that Venice didn’t even have a name. It would be so much easier to think of it as pure form, like a philosopher, as absolute truth, beauty, perfection, as the essence of a city, as not just the city of my youth, but the essence of every city.Venice doesn’t need words. I don’t need words for Venice. If I needed anything, I would need only images. And images of Venice await my return.Giardino Giusti

Jon Boorstin

This collection of very brief tales about imaginary cities, as told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, is impossible to describe, because it's existence is the words. Made into a very effective opera, performed to acclaim at Union Station, in Los Angeles, with the audience following the singers through the halls, and listening on Sennheiser headphones. Calvino evokes alternative worlds, and we inhabit them.

Δx Δp ≥ ½ ħ

"Tidak mudah untuk menjelaskan isi novel ini. Setiap usaha untuk melakukannya tampaknya hanya akan berakhir sia-sia. Bukan semata karena gambaran kota-kota magis dan surealis yang ada di dalamnya, tetapi juga karena keindahan puitisnya. Inilah novel dimana kemustahilan imajinasi bertemu dengan pasangan sempurnanya : kefasihan bercerita " Itu kata endorsementnya.Tadinya saya mengira bahwa pujian untuk buku ini terlampau berlebihan. Tapi begitu habis bab-bab awal, saya sadar, pujian tersebut justru terasa terlalu rendah hati.Buku ini memang unik luar biasa. dicetak dengan format pocket book--bahkan komik Doraemon pun masih lebih tebal-- cerita yang tersaji di dalamnya benar-benar memikat, meluber melebihi ukuran bukunya. Sebuah buku yang memanjakan mata akan bahasanya yang puitis dan memuaskan imajinasi dengan cerita yang menghanyutkan.Membaca buku ini laiknya membaca buku Mimpi-mimpi Einstein-nya Alan Lightman, di mana keindahan prosa puitis mengalir lancar sepanjang aliran cerita. Sangat kentara kalau Calvino memilih kata-kata dalam buku ini dengan sangat cermat. Bagaimana tidak, jika pengarang lain akan menghabiskan berlembar-lembar kata pujian dekriptif tentang suatu keindahan, Calvino cukup merangkumnya dalam satu kalimat saja. Tidak heran kan kalo novel ini menjadi novel bisa tipis nan imut? Para pujangga (amatiran) yang biasanya membuncah-buncah dalam berkata-kata mestinya malu pada Calvino.Isi ceritanya? saya setuju dg endorsementnya, kalau upaya untuk mengintisarikan isi novel ini akan sukar, dan mungkin jatuh pada kesia-siaan. Well, memang cara terbaiknya adalah membaca sendiri isi bukunya. Benar-benar keren. Sensasi ini mungkin akan dialami jika kita membaca mahakarya prosa puitis lainnya seperti karya Rumi atau Nietzche.Ok, saya akan berusaha merangkum ceritanya--cmiiw--. Kisah ini bercerita tentang perjalanan seorang penjelajah (dari Eropa) dalam mengunjungi negri-negri eksotis (di Asia?). Di mana dalam perjalanannya, dia mengunjungi kota-kota dengan keindahan sempurna pada zamannya. Sang penjelajah (teridentifikasi sebagai Marcopolo) menceritakan perjalanan menakjubkannya itu pada Sang Kaisar (Kubilai Khan) betapa kota-kota yang dia kunjungi begitu indah, modern, dan cantik. Sang Raja terpesona, dan meminta Sang penjelajah untuk terus bercerita. Uniknya, alih-alih menyebutkan nama kotanya, Calvino menyebutkan nama kotanya secara khayali dimana nama kota yg dia sebutkan tidak benar-benar ada di dunia, seperti Zora, Zirma, Eusaphia, dsb. Tapi, tak sebatas rincian keindahannya saja, Sang Penjelajah juga mengamati bahwa kota-kota tersebut dalam keadaan nyaris sekarat. Peperangan dan keterasingan nyaris meluluhlantahkan keindahan kota. Keindahan yang rapuh.Tapi, dengan mudah kita bisa menebak bahwa kota yang dimaksud Calvino adalah kota-kota di sekitar Asia Tengah, Asia Kecil, dan Asia Barat Daya. Soalnya, di abad pertengahan, ketika kota-kota Eropa sedang suram, kota-kota di Asia itu sedang cemerlang-secemerlangnya oleh keindahan arsitektur dan kemajuan ipteknya. Bahkan, kota yang berada di tengah gurun pun disulap menjadi istana megah dan lautan menara yang menjulang. Isfahan, Bukhara, Baku, Tashkent, dll telah menjadi simbol kemewahan dan modernitas pada masanya.Untungnya Marcopolo mengunjungi kota-kota eksotis tersebut dalam keadaan 'masih hidup'. Soalnya, tak lama kemudian, akibat peperangan dan keserakahan, kota-kota itu hilang, lenyap, sekarat, dan bangkrut. Bahkan sampai sekarang pun, kota-kota itu hanya dikenal sebagai kota tua yang eksotik, dan mati suri. Simbol modernitas masa lampau ituh malah menjadi ikon kota yang ketinggalan zaman dewasa ini. Dan Calvino dengan briliannya menceritakan keindahan kota itu secara dramatis pada detik-detik kejatuhannya. Sulit bukan menggambarkan sesuatu yang indah tapi sekaligus saat itu dia sedang mati suri dan sekarat? Calvino berhasil melakukannya. Dengan cemerlang dan apik.Dari sejarah kita tahu bahwa kota-kota indah itu --yang keindahannya menimbulkan romantisme dan mitos hingga sekarang--, kebanyakan dibangun oleh bangsa Mongol. Padahal yang namanya bangsa Mongol adalah bangsa yang suka berperang. Mereka tak segan-segan membunuh semua penduduk suatu kota. bangsa Mongol hanya mengijinkan hidup para seniman saja. Mereka dipaksa membangun kota yang lebih indah dari asalnya. kota yang dimatikan untuk dihidupkan.Konon Hulagu Khan membuat piramid dari tengkorak manusia. Alhasil, kota yang dibangun itu, di balik kemegahannya, ternyata sangat rapuh. Di balik dinding-dinding marmer mulusnyanya tersimpan kebusukan yang akan menggerogoti keabadiannya. lambat laun, kota-kota itu hilang dari peta bumi. Yah, seperti itulah gambaran kasar 'Kota-kota Imajiner'. Benar-benar harus mebacanya sendiri untuk ikut hanyut dalam romantime kota-kota ini. Mambaca buku ini kita seakan melancong ke sebuah negri asing yang hanya ada dalam dongeng. Kita akan memasuki relung-relung istana yang mewah sekaligus berdarah. seperti yang digambarkan Calvino tentang kota yang bernama Zora, "...Zora telah merana, terpecah belah, sirna. Bumi telah melupakannya...."Ironisnya, bahkan proses kota yang sekarat masih terus berlangsung dewasa ini. Bisa kita lihat bahwa kebanyakan kota yang mendapat julukan metropolitan, justru adalah kota-kota yang bisa dikatakan sebagai kota gagal... Kesenjangan sosial, kriminalitas, kerapuhan nilai susila hingga ketimpangan ekosistem, membuat bangunan megah nan menjulang hanya sebagai topeng bagi wajah kota yang bopeng...berikut ada pujian dari majalah Times Literary Suplement yang prestisius itu,".... mendedahkan ide, kiasan, dan wawasan imajinatif yang mempesona hampir di setiap halamannya..."


Vorrei spiegare perché questo libro merita di essere letto, ricordato e amato, ma non è facile. Terminata la lettura, non si è certi della vera natura dell'esperienza vissuta viaggiando attraverso luoghi così astratti e unici: ciascuna città richiama dettagli, difetti, tendenze presenti in tutte le nostre città, ma anche e soprattutto ricordi, amori passati e futuri, persone conosciute e mai dimenticate, sensazioni sepolte dall'età sotto qualche strato di inutile realismo; qualcosa che abbiamo imparato a immaginare e vivere in pieno da bambini e poi abbandonato, e che Calvino decide, con chissà quale strumento letterario, di restituirci.Delle città surreali evocate in questo libro, esplorate o immaginate da Marco Polo per Kublai Kan e ricreate dal mercante veneziano per la mente del condottiero mongolo con oggetti, gesti, salti e grida, e solo più tardi con parole, resta qualcosa di importantissimo nel lettore: ricordi che pensavo di aver perduto, luoghi di cui non sentivo parlare da troppo tempo, e un originalissimo modo di interpretare gli spazi della realtà in cui viviamo.L'ultimo commento che posso fare è questo: se non avete una copia del "Milione" di Marco Polo, procuratevi quella curata e riscritta da Maria Bellonci, aiuterà a capire molti riferimenti di Calvino a Marco Polo e al suo modo di raccontare, e i due libri finiscono, in qualche modo, per completarsi a vicenda, e non saprei dire quale dei due sia più legato alla realtà e quale al sogno e alla necessità di immaginare luoghi lontani e sorprendenti.

Riku Sayuj

Invisible Cities; Imagined Lives Marco Polo was a dreamer. He had great ambitions - wanting to be a traveller, a writer and a favored courtier. He wanted to live in the lap of luxury in his lifetime and in the best illustrated pages of history later. But he could only be a dreamer and never much more. Was it good enough? He never travelled anywhere and spent his life dreaming away in his Venice and is remembered to this day as the greatest explorer and travel writer of all time. How did that come about? It is a tale about the triumph of imagination over experience.In Venice, that city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. Marco Polo was traveling in a little boat in that Venice and thinking of the Marco Polo he was meant to be when his imagination began to soar. All the travelogues he wanted to write started coming to his mind. A whole book of descriptions, all made of poems that would describe the beauty of this city like those waves reflecting it in varied shapes among their ripples. He watched the people moving along the streets, each eye seeing the same city differently, dependent on the angle of observation, and speaking in a language of symbols and images that is more powerful than words can ever be. The river is the story, the river is the book, arranged in perfect sinusoidal waves of its own and choosing as its reader the greatest of all appreciators, the book catches the splendor of the city and reflects it for your patient eyes in a sort of primitive cubism, leaving it to you to make out all its meaning and all its poetry and to see ultimately yourself in that reflection of all the cities that imagination could possibly build.He started going on long voyages into his own mind, into the reflections of Venice, and into the reflections of those reflections. And then he wrote them down and he spoke of them and he sang of them. Men stopped to listen. They paid to hear him, first with time, then with gold, then with diamonds and great honors.The Venetian was soon summoned to the court of the great Kublai Khan, who was also a dreamer. He envisioned himself to be the greatest of rulers, his kingdom expanding and pouring over the whole vast world until all the world was under him. He knew that information was power and he wanted to know of every single city under him, and of every city that was to be under him. ‘On the day when I know all the cities,’ he thought, 'I shall be able to possess my empire, at last!’ He wanted Marco polo to be his eyes and ears and sent him off, with instructions to visit the most far flung and exotic provinces and to understand the soul of every city and to report back to him.Marco Polo bowed every time and with great aplomb set off for his great voyages. Next week he would be in his beloved Venice, dreaming up the world, a world more real than reality, with all the ingredients needed to construct a city - memories, desires, signs, skies, trade, eyes, sounds, shapes, names and the dead. He spoke of old cities with gods and demons in it, of cities yet to be, with airplanes and atomic bombs coloring their movements, and of cities that should have been, with happiness and sorrow apportioned in balance. What separates the dream’s reality from the dreamer’s reality? He pondered on this mystery with every city. Maybe all successful men dream our lives as it should be while rotting in some sewer and maybe all unhappy men dream their unhappiness in life while rotting in some palace? Maybe we can only continue our chosen destinies and everything else is a dream. It is only invisible cities we can construct. And we can reflect on them only through imagination, and fiction. He knew his cities were real.It took many years for the Great Khan to realize that Marco Polo wasn't describing cities so much as the human mind and experience. He realized that every city, whether imagined by Marco Polo or constructed by planned blueprints or grown from slow accretion are all dreams given shape by human hands, by human ambition, by a desire for a future that can be shaped. In fact, Marco Polo’s cities started to seem to him more real than any he knew to be real. He learned that if men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a city in which to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.Khan now knew how to travel, to really travel. He could now accompany the great explorer in his prophetic journeys. He could describe cities to Marco Polo and he could listen to him, even as he filled in the details. They could sit together in the courtyard and be silent and still travel through the most exotic and most truthful of cities.Then came a day when Marco Polo had to inform the Khan, ‘Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.''There is still one of which you never speak.'Marco Polo bowed his head.'Venice,' the Khan said.Marco smiled. 'What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?'The emperor did not turn a hair. 'And yet I have never heard you mention that name.'And Polo said: 'Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.''When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.' Khan made an attempt at looking angry but he knew his friend could see through faces and all such masks.'To distinguish the other cities' qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice. For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Venice under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Venice.’'You should then describe for me Venice - as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.''Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,' Polo said. 'Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.’Kublai looked at Polo. He understood. To tell a story you have to start from what you know best. You have to put your soul in the story and then build the flesh, the hair, the face and the clothes around it. The more stories you tell, the more of your soul you invest and lay bare to the world. When do you start fearing that you are as invisible as the cities you create? Kublai continued to look sadly at his friend.Kublai asks Marco, 'When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?''I speak and speak,' Marco says, 'but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.'Then Khan knew that the sadness he felt so pressingly as he tried to force the wine down was not for his dear friend but for himself, he now knew that as he was listening to all the stories that Marco Polo was describing to him, he was only hearing stories that he was telling himself. The cities were all real, but they were not reflections of Marco Polo’s soul, they were not reflecting his Venice. They were reflecting Kublai Khan’s own soul, his own empire, ambitions, desires and fears.Disclaimer: Marco Polo Really Did Go To China, MaybeEdit: I got a message from a goodreader asking me why I put up the whole story of the book without a spoiler warning... Please go ahead and read the review without any fear of spoilers, the connection with the plot of the book (if any) is very tenuous - this is an imagined plot/backstory for a book that deliberately lacks one.

Henry Martin

You past adolescence and enter the world of adult literature. At first, you read anything and everything that found its way to your hands; then, slowly you begin discovering your own, unique literary taste, and you become selective. The more you read, the more selective you become. Your list of favorite authors and genres grows; you find literary voices that speak directly to your soul. By now, you have reached mid age, and you have over two decades of serious reading under your belt. Any new book that you open, any new author that you discover is judged against your favorites, against the voices that stimulated your mind over the years. Words and phrases are judged against those that provided comfort when you felt down; ideas and executions are compared against the benchmarks established over the years. You think you know what you like; you think you know what to expect. Well, perhaps you do. New books come along, and some attempt to quietly sneak in to your consciousness, while others attempt to shatter your world. Most, if not all, pale with your favorites, do not fit with your ideas, or leave you cold. Then, one day, you come across a gently used book. It's small, it looks interesting, and you buy it. That book manages to get under your skin in a very inconspicuous way, without you even noticing. Such was my encounter with Invisible Cities. My first Italo Calvino. He arrived on the heels of Bolaño, Borges, Ungar, and Girondo. Good company, you might say. I say no. Bolaño left me lukewarm—I was expecting more. Borges blew my mind—but only temporarily—he is amazing, but very systematic. Ungar was great—while reading him. Girondo was thought-provoking—entertaining but not mind-altering. Calvino managed to deliver where all of the above failed. He did not force his way to me, he came unsuspected, veiled in beautiful prose. All of the aforementioned authors wrote fine literature, amazing actually. Yet, they were all "in your face" at times. Calvino is like a spy who sneaks in under the cover of darkness. And here comes the strangest part: I haven't even noticed. To be honest, I cannot quite describe what kind of book is Invisible Cities. At first, I thought I knew. Then I thought I did not know, then I thought I knew again, and, in the end, I was reminded that I did not know. The book is simply beautiful. It is irrelevant and relevant at the same time, pointless and necessary at other times, while remaining non-contradictory. Does this make sense? I thought so. To me, Invisible Cities is not a single book, but three separate books. The first one is a wonderful study of humanity. These are the cities that reflect human behavior, the cities that serve as metaphor for greed, anger, vanity, et cetera. The second book is a book of cautionary tales. These are the cities that tell a story, a story of what will happen if we, as humans, do not change our ways. The third book is a book of philosophy. These are the cities as metaphors for mortality, actions and consequences, continuity, faith... To this book also belong the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, for these are truly philosophical. Then again, I am probably wrong on all counts. One thing is certain, and that is the undeniable truth that Italo Calvino was an amazing writer. His prose is magical. So now, after more than two decades of reading what I consider to be quality literature, I have to shuffle my mental shelf and make room for Calvino, right next to my all-time favorites where he belongs.

Stephanie Sun

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.Imagine holding in a fart for eleven years and finally being able to let it out.That's what reading, and finally finishing (eleven years after receiving it as a college graduation gift), Invisible Cities was like for me in October 2013.In a journey as recursive, prototypical, and double-blind as anything Italo himself could have hoped for, for eleven years this book has followed me to the humid climes of Malaya, various burros of New Yuck, and finally to the city that Calvino as the slightly more eccentric of his two alter-egos described as "span[ning] the Golden Gate and the bay with long, light bridges... open trains climbing its steep streets, and which might blossom as capital of the Pacific a millennium hence, after the long siege of three hundred years that would lead the races of the yellow and the black and the red to fuse with the surviving descendants of the whites in an empire more vast than the Great Khan's."*That's eleven years of guilt and inadequacy, eleven years of I tried that and I do not like it, eleven years of bitter resentment at the fawning of easily impressed literary types over post-modernist drivel...Eleven years of being completely and totally wrong. This is brilliant. It is about cities and stories, about the way both cities and stories endure and yet are in constant motion, about the aggregations of death and life they contain. I read this, of course, as a former New Yorker. Just as Marco Polo saw Venice everywhere, so did so many of the Venetian's descriptions of fantastical cities (that are all really Venice) evoke for me the way New York could change (to paraphrase Joss Whedon about one of his actors) "from Jack Benny to Dracula in a heartbeat." Calvino gets how the beauty, Gothic horrorshow, stress, and fun of city life are all mixed up together in one big pot of crazy, how in fact your Gothic horrorshow may be someone else's fun, and so on and so forth. I guess all writers who write about city life, or post-war America, or their cats, okay, basically all writers, try to get at this point, but in doing so directly, with realistic characters and dialogue, they don't capture the absurdity in all its stripes the way Calvino does here.That brings me to the voice... If you are anything like twenty-three- to thirty-two-year-old me you will hate the voice of this book. It is as affected and twee as the giggle of a Japanese teenager. And that's where it all comes back to timing. It wasn't just that I had never lived in a city for longer than two months when I first picked up this book and couldn't connect with the subject matter the way that I can today. It's also that my life entered a moment of peak absurdity around the time I picked up this book a second time, and so I took to its absurd voice and general absurdly absurd absurdness like Calvino to a striking series of unrelated objects.In 165 pages, Calvino will show you both the pitchest blacks and silliest joys of the universe and leave you sighing with recognition and relief.* Whoa. Italo Calvino totally saw my Facebook feed.

Rakhi Dalal

A city inhabiting one’s inside, its streets, lanes and by-lanes running in the veins and arteries, the hubbub of the city enlivening even the tiniest fraction of a being. The city; living, breathing, growing and leaving an impression in the very essence, even if it is never visited in one’s lifetime. And then - a multitude of such cities, standing under the auspices of their heritage, a witness to the chronicles of their golden times, cities with their halos; an invisible but inescapable allure. Cities; rising with dusk, their pulses throbbing to the rhythm of stars. Cadence of street lights; illuminating in its glow, the stones of the wall of a building standing silently and witnessing bare human emotions/acts – love, passion, deceit, despair, joy, pain, indifference but above all a discreteness embodying the city. Cities, with its uneven alleys where an old man sit outside the door of his house, the wrinkles on his face telling the story of his life, his eyes a testimony of submission in the face of the inevitable, and a young, beautiful woman, selling seasonal flowers by the side; unnerving a quiescent thought. The labyrinthine roads which never seem to end, taking one forward, on and on, with their flow, adding a clutter of houses by the side, a face sneaking from a window; seeming a gateway to the unknown. The outline of houses in the sea by which they stand; the shadows in clear water defying the ephemeral. Cities, with those parks and boulevards where a curious seeker seeks the traces of path trodden by great authors and thinkers; an eagerness to associate with that one idea, a particular thought, capable of creating a summer inside….. Let me seek those cities O my mind, cities invisible but living inside me….


Perhaps my previous experiences with Calvino's writings led me to expect something different out of this book. Each short chapter certainly had plenty to make me think about, but after finishing the book as a whole I am having a hard time putting all of those thoughts together in a coherent way. I liked it. I really did. But I'm left more with a feeling of not having understood something very important from the whole 'story'...something Calvino wanted me to understand. Is it really just the fragments of beautiful imagery and poignant observations that the reader is to walk away with after reading this? If so, then I need to re-read it with that in mind - maybe just pick it up from time to time and read a random chapter to get the mental wheels spinning. If not, then I need to re-read it with a keener mindset, and I need to talk with 'someone' about what I've missed.Either way, looks like this one should never be far from my reach.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *