Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities
Le città invisibili (1972)
Translated by William Weaver
In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.
After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.
I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
The author postulates a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in 14th-century China. Polo’s trips through the domains of the Khan culminate in reports to the emperor, initially prompted by objects from the cities Polo has supposedly visited but later, as the Venetian starts to master the language, by direct speech. Each city has a name such as Eudoxia or Octavia, quite obviously a woman’s name, and each of the fifty-five conurbations described has a peculiarity that differentiates it from all of the others. One is surrounded by water, another has a vast hinterland; another still has a hidden subterranean counterpart while a further one is distinguished by the views at roof level.
This concept of gaining knowledge about the general from the particular, whether from an object or a reported aspect of the city, is quite clearly inadequate to usefully convey the totality of each city, as soon becomes clear: as Marco’s cities proliferate Kublai Khan begins to suspect that only one city is being described and that is Venezia, La Serenissima, the City of Bridges or Queen of the Adriatic. This moment of realization (if the cover blurb has not already given it away) creates the consciousness that Jorge Luis Borges often produces in his short stories, where, aided by the catalyst of magic realism, normal consciousness metamorphoses into that awareness of the Fantastic that we encounter on holiday .
Calvino compounds this feeling of disorientation by introducing into Polo’s accounts of his medieval cities anachronistic details that are only possible in the twentieth century. He further subverts matters by reversing the usual model of the master-disciple dialogue drawn from Ancient Greek examples: who, in these conversations between emperor and visitor, is the one to whom deference is due as the teacher? Is it the mighty Khan or the lowly Polo?
And, just as doubt has been expressed that the historic Marco Polo actually journeyed to the Far East, with his tales perhaps ghost-written by a fellow prisoner when he returned to Italy, so we soon stop suspending our belief in the conceit of these fictional descriptions and conversations being historically plausible. Instead, we start to understand the narrative as a series of meditations for us moderns to ponder on: if Venice can be described in more than fifty ways and one still not get to its essence, how much less so can we comprehend other cities, states, peoples or persons in a brief instant?
The descriptions of the cities are relatively short, a page or two at most, and have been rightly described as prose poems. I really enjoyed Calvino’s collection Italian Folktales and the individual ‘tales’ in Invisible Cities captured much of the same tone and purpose.
There is much else to consider in this novella, such as the elaborate structure that Calvino founds his narrative on, or the ability of any translation, even this excellent one by William Weaver, to adequately convey the subtleties of the author’s language without copious notes and a working knowledge of Italian; these are matters to perhaps contemplate more fully after further readings.
For now, this observation: I followed Invisible Cities by reading another of Donna Leon’s thoughtful Commissario Brunetti crime novels. These are set in a Venice which is not the tourist’s destination but which is nevertheless a bona fide city with ordinary and extraordinary inhabitants and where goodness and wrongdoing intermingle. It is a city largely invisible to the visitor on holiday even if all too obvious to Venetians themselves, and as such is eminently suitable for inclusion in Marco Polo’s wondrous catalogue, Calvino’s modern classic.
Review first posted 16th December 2012; no particular reason to repost except that September 2019 was the month Venice was said to be finally banning large cruise ships from its historic centre, but later reports reported this was only a statement of intent, not a directive