Long into the night Marco Polo sits in Kublai Kahn’s palace telling him about all the cities he has visited, cities the Kahn will never get the chance to see.
This is the premise for Italo Calvino’s wonderful novella Invisible Cities translated from the Italian by William Weaver.
Each of the short chapters describes one city. After a few chapters, the dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublia Kahn intterupts for a page or two.
It shouldn’t work so well. It ought to become tiresome after a while. It certainly shouldn’t begin to be something of a page-turner. But it did, it didn’t and it was.
I loved it.
I kind of want to read it again right now though I just finished reading it.
I was reminded of Alan Lightman’s wonderful book Einstein’s Dreams which is just a series of possible ways time might work in other realities. Turns out Mr. Lightman’s book is inspired by Invisible Cities, at least structurally.
I enjoyed both the descriptions of the cities and the scenes of dialogue in Invisible Cities. I found the cities to be wonderful, worthy of Kublia Kahn’s stately pleasure dome. While I was reading an imagined encyclopedia, I found I always wanted more. Each one struck my fancy one way or another. The dialogue worked in creating two characters, giving them a life outside of the encyclopedia while managing to comment on the cities described.
There were many bits that I loved, like this one:
The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isadora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old me sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.
There is so much about language in Invisible Cities that I began to wonder if I should read the book as theory. Is. Mr. Calvino giving us his theory of aesthetics in his descriptions of these imagined cities? Is he presenting a philosophy? He may very well be doing just that, but the reader need not worry. There is plenty on the surface to enjoy in Invisible Cities without digging for meaning.
Invisible Cities comes with my highest recommendation.