Sunday, December 11, 2016

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

And Polo said: "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."

Invisible Cities is framed as a conversation between the Mongol lord Kublai Khan, who has conquered an area of the world too large for him to experience or understand, and the traveler Marco Polo, who describes to Khan the various cities that belong to his kingdom.  Each city, given a woman's name, is described in one to three pages, and represents a meditation on human life, understanding, memory, or desire.

One of my favorites is the city of Tamara, where signs tell you each building's purpose in the system of the city.  This becomes a meditation on the reliability of signs to express what is signified:

Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself an all her parts.

However the city may be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it.  Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds.  In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant...

Another is Zobeide, the city which "men of various nations" built after seeing it identical dreams wherein they pursue a beautiful woman:

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

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

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

There are 55 of these cities.  It would be easy for a book like this to become repetitive or tedious, but Calvino's achievement relies on his ability to surprise within a few pages of narrative, and the seeming inexhaustibility of his imagination.  I think the ideal way to read this book would be one city a day, like a devotional.  But Calvino is so adept at looking at the same ideas from new and fresh perspectives that the book's contrivances never really get old.

And at the center of the book are Polo and Kublai, who give the narrative a human element and allow us to imagine in them our own relationship to the places we have known.  What do the places we have been, or the places we have dreamed of going, tell us about our memories and desires?  Though it's not about real places--really, it casts a skeptical eye on what we mean by the idea of place at all--Invisible Cities has a lot to say about the way we move through the real world.

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