Invisible Cities

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

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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

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.


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


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.

Francesco Fantuzzi

E Polo: - L'inferno dei viventi non è qualcosa che sarà; se ce n'è uno, è quello che è già qui, l'inferno che abitiamo tutti i giorni, che formiamo stando insieme. Due modi ci sono per non soffrirne. Il primo riesce facile a molti: accettare l'inferno e diventarne parte fino al punto di non vederlo più. Il secondo è rischioso ed esige attenzione e apprendimento continui: cercare e saper riconoscere chi e che cosa, in mezzo all'inferno, non è inferno, e farlo durare, e dargli spazio. Vorrei partire proprio da queste poche parole, la cifra conclusiva di questo breve romanzo, per metterne in luce le migliori sue qualità. Innanzitutto mi preme enfatizzare la dimensione etica di tale narrazione. La pericope citata rappresenta un monito all'uomo di sempre, sospeso tra bene e male, invischiato in una lotta nella quale è la parte peggiore quella che, apparentemente, sembra sempre avere la meglio. Questo monito ci parla ancora oggi (e più che mai), ci invita a non lasciare la parola definitiva sulla nostra esistenza a un abbrutimento, sebbene ci appaia soverchiante. Dare fiducia a quella beatitudine minoritaria, che appare schiacciata nel mondo d'oggi, può rappresentare una scommessa che vale la pena lanciare. E' bello sapere che, nel passato, abbiamo avuto scrittori e intellettuali capaci di slancio profetico, che non indietreggiavano davanti alla dimensione dell'etica. Purtroppo in tanta narrativa di oggi mi pare ci sia piuttosto quell'adeguarsi all'inferno, di cui qui si è parlato.Gli altri motivi di pregio di questo libro sono altrettanto importanti. Balza agli occhi una scrittura virtuosistica, che sembra giocare con una facilità sovrumana con l'arte della variazione. Le parole di Marco Polo dipingono all'interlocutore città attraverso una molteplicità di lenti di rifrazione diverse, da far nascere il sospetto nel lettore: tante città? Una sola? La città si trasforma in espediente della coscienza che vede il mondo. E lo vede in molti modi diversi, attraverso caratterizzazioni peculiari (quel paio di lenti) che si ripropongono più volte, come testimoniano i titoletti di ognuna. Infatti ogni città ha un suo nome, ma nell'architettura del libro viene indicata da un titoletto che dichiara il punto di vista (le città e la memoria; le città e il desiderio; le città e i segni e così via) affiancato da un numero progressivo, testimonianza per questo gusto per la variazione (del quale Calvino non ha mai mancato di professare un certo apostolato).Altra fondamentale caratteristica calviniana è il gusto per la parola, la sapienza nell'uso di un lessico che sia anche, contemporaneamente, suono e azione. Anche in questo l'autore dimostra un virtuosismo fuori dal comune.Perché non ho attribuito le (meritatissime) cinque stellette? Perché riservo quell'ultima a una componente volubile, il gusto personale. Esaltante e trascinante questo romanzo a livello intellettuale: una grandissima opera. Il mio coinvolgimento personale, però, non è stato viscerale (del resto Calvino non è autore di questo genere), perciò lascio l'esclusiva della quinta stella a quei romanzi e racconti che custodiscono con sé una parte della mia esistenza. Tutto qui.


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.


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.


Invisible Cities: A ParodyNow i shall tell of the city of Yendys, which is wonderful in this fashion: though set on an even coastal plane with mediocre breeze and timid weather, the houses and decorated sheds are of bricks and corrugated iron, connected to each other with quiet courtyards split by pairs, surrounded with exotic, tidy bush of ginormous flowers, man-sized tin water tanks, weather vanes and shinny Japanese vehicles parked on dark grey gravel street that glistens under the sun. No one knows why the houses resemble European Tudor or Georgian styles so much, so there is no telling whether the city was satisfied by the suburban gesture. In some inner city zones, perhaps through liberal reform and bloody council battles, a foreign, hipster array of successive coloured oddities stand at crooked angles among rusted steel frame warehouses, now converted to underground DJ joints for the city's inhabitants. This said, it is pointless to decide whether Yendys is to be classified among the winning cities or among loser cities. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to zombie pollution, and those in which such poison either erase the city or are erased by it.

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.

Arun Divakar

For once, just for this once I agree with a review on the book cover. On the cover page of Invisible Cities is written a line by Sunday Times " A subtle, beautiful meditation..", the book lives up to these words in its 165 pages. This is my first Italo Calvino and I intend to find out from some place his acclaimed "If on a winter's night..".Unfolding as a dialog between the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan & the legendary explorer Marco Polo, the book is a dream like sojourn through a distant land( or should i say dream !)scapes. When the book began, I was trying to make sense of the names of the cities as Marco described them but then somewhere along the flow of the book the names of the cities did not matter. At some points it is the travel to reach the city that matters, at others it could be a street in the city that holds your attention & at other times it could be the glimpse of a face at the window if just for a second ; these are the remembrances the book left me with. The cities that Marco Polo describes to the Emperor all maybe begin and end with the narrator's home : Venice. It is from a subtly vague remembrance of Venice that Marco might begin describing a tale. From this might branch the alleys, by lanes and streets of a distant city. Whether the city might be a dream or reality is something that is hinted in the book at many a place. The traveler takes the emperor through many a facet of the cities : through resplendent glory & Opulence to death & decay ; through cities built within cities & alternate realities to crumbling dust of once glorious townships & mazes of cities from which there is no return. Keeping Polo's descriptions aside, the insightful dialog that passes between the two are wonderful to say the least. One of those books where I never skipped through pages...there were too few to skip any way !!!Recommended to all those who would want a dreamy journey through imaginary landscapes of beauty & grace...One of those wonderful lines in the book as said by Marco Polo when asked to describe Venice by the emperor : Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. 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.

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


In writing, pretension is the act of pulling your hamstring while lifting your pen. It is that sudden, clear, and unfortunate. It should also be avoidable, but anyone gifted with a grain of brilliance is tempted to extend it as far as they can, like Donne's speck of dust stretched the length of the universe, one is left wondering whether it was more ludicrous or thought-provoking.Calvino's 'Invisible Cities' is a series of descriptions of mythical, impossible cities told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Each short description is like one of Donne's metaphysical poems: presenting a philosophical argument or idea and then turning it on its head. As an Italian, Calvino drew his inspiration from the same source as Donne: Ludovico Petrarch.Petrarch is the innovator of the modern sonnet, the modern love poem, and 'confessional' poetry. However, before you all wish him dead(er), his 'love' and 'confessions' were only the cover for his philosophical explorations. Like Sidney, Shakespeare, Wyatt, and the Victorian poets (Keats, Browning, Byron), the surface of the poem is not the whole story.Also like Petrarch, Calvino's short pieces all work together to create a grander story, using repetition and developing symbols to create webs of meaning from one story to any other. Both Petrarch and Calvino take a narrow view for their collections, one Love and the other Cities, but Petrarch does more with his.Calvino's repetition is sometimes interesting and meaningful, but often, it seems like he's still trying to hash out his ideas. Some of the cities are remarkable and poignant, but others somewhat scattered and redundant.The frame story of Polo and Kublai also vacillates in profundity. At it's best, it questions the nature of human relationships, interaction, understanding, and language barriers. At other times it descends into New Age metaphysics and solipsism: endlessly wondrous, endlessly pointless, and perfect for capturing the imagination of the first-year philosophy major.These moments of overextension are balanced by some truly thought-provoking and delightful observations and questions about the nature of the world and the senses. The book is truly dreamlike, in that one dream may alter the way you look at life, while the next one will be about bass fishing with Julie Newmar in your underwear; fun perhaps, but not lasting.There's also the fact that Marco Polo probably never even went to China, but it's hard to blame Calvino, the proud Italian, for embracing such an oft-touted 'fact'.Calvino has a great talent, and a remarkable mind, but it's clear that he was bent on transgressing and ignoring boundaries, and hence often crosses the limits of his own skill. This uninhibited exploration is truly something every author and artists should aspire to, but the false leaps should be left behind in editing.As redundancy and vagueness builds up, we can see the areas of difficulty and obsession for Calvino, for these always end with a shrug instead of the final thrust that carries us over his more salient points. While in these cases he might make the journey itself the important part, he tends to concentrate on the ends, even when he proves incapable of reaching them.Walking the same roads again and again looking for something and failing to find it is not the mark of the fantastical fabulist, but of the minute realist. Calvino's story is never small and personal, even when detailed and nostalgic, it is hyperbolic and magical.When he dances around some vague point, he is not Ariosto, presenting the limits of mankind: Calvino gives us his own limits. The descriptions are far-flung and often set the mind reeling with humor or more poignant observation. That he sometimes overextends himself is not such a crime, when occasionally, he does reach those heights.It's true to say that this book is not any one thing, that it defies description and draws from many sources and traditions, but neither do these varying and disparate influences coalesce into some wholly new vision. The closer he comes to any climax or conclusion, the more he grows uncertain.Is it ever really meaningful to end by stating "maybe it is this way, maybe it is that way, maybe nothing exists at all"? What do we gain by saying this that we would not have by simply leaving it unsaid? The author who imagines stating that his own ignorance is profound is simply exercising the vanity of false humility.Better to let the observations and moments of wit speak for themselves. If the reader is not reminded of his own short-sightedness by these, then telling him he is short-sighted certainly won't help.I must say that these moments of falling flat could have been a subtlety of William Weaver's translation, but since such an issue is beyond my meager means to fully explore, I felt it better to tender my review to the book I read, rather than to the book that might exist out there, somewhere.

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.

MJ Nicholls

I read the edition translated into Scots by Wullie Weaver. Here are a few excerpts:Repulsive Cities ∙ 2The red brick edifices tower over the populace, signifers of a forgotten dream, of a thought abandoned in the ailing conscious of intrepid colonial adventurers. A range of hominids patrol the looming DSS office walls, dishing out abuse to obese mothers and wageless wanderers. This is a city of broken faeces, a city of cross-eyed big brothers, watching from the skies for a sign of salvation, something to lift this horrible land to a brighter plateau. In every repulsive city there is a gem, a signal: the kindly arms of naïve temptresses.Backward Cities ∙ 5In a field of obtuse posies I come across a farmer, tilling the field with his bent hoe, straining crops into order. “Quaint vassal, wherefore the heart of this green desert?” I ask. “In the shiny breasts of my daughter, that’s where, oh-lordy-aye,” he says. Across the road I spy a girl with the face of this man, his features as though transcribed on her red-rosied skin. All around me, a tissue of incestuous progenies, mixing their colours, discussing the fastest route into hell, where redemption no longer achieves the mythos of a dream.Pretentious Cities ∙ 1Among the golden buttresses sits a Lord, his luxurious grey beard brushing the bespectacled inhabitants, reading from the Great Works. Etched in history, the builders and planners, their names spelt in flashing neon clouds, passing through the streets, filling the people with words and ideas. Down the street a gemstone, doused in the milks of the Great Poets, where scholars feed from, where the fools are sacrificed at the altar of knowledge.

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"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..."


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.

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