It’s hard to classify this book, which seems to splay out in disjointed shapes more than most of Calvino’s work. He enjoyed defying a reader’s expectations of what a story can be. I guess Invisible Cities is a philosophical travelogue treatise with fantasy/sci-fi elements. If I really want to wedge something else in that description, then this could also be historical/political. The whole book is a series of dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. That’s it. The two men sit around smoking long-stemmed amber pipes while Polo describes some malarkey B.S. cities that he has visited. The emperor goads the traveler on, sure that these tales are all fantasies. Half the time, Calvino tells the reader point-blank that Kublai Khan isn’t really listening. At first, since he doesn’t speak the language, Polo even mimes metaphors (“the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net…a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl”).
It’s really like reading a number of prose poems about how humans design, live in, remember, and desire places. Every named city has a symbolic purpose, even if that purpose is just to entertain the emperor or appease one of his languid moods.
Calvino is doing something similar to what Melville did in those encyclopedic chapters of Moby-Dick, wherein every subject under the sun or a human skull is connoted to a single idea (the white whale/the urban congregation of people). Calvino proves that his own chosen symbol is just as inexhaustible. For that alone, I would recommend this book. It’s not the most gripping of reads and it really started to make me question whether we can even classify this as a novel (lacking as it is in plot and even flimsy on character development). Considering that relatively meager frame, I’m even more curious to hear that this was turned into an opera. I know those don’t always have the tightest or most logical plots, but still. Read in snippets of 30 pages or so a shot, Invisible Cities does provide the imagination with some beautiful pictures. And a book that functions as a novel of ideas/art gallery at once is just awesomesauce.
It’s no surprise that the descriptions in this book have inspired artists and architects. Just do a web search for Invisible Cities and you’ll see plenty of artworks depicting various cities. My favorite of the 55 cities in the novel is Octavia, so here’s that whole chapter to give you a sense of Calvino’s prose.
“If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell you how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.
“This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
“Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.”