Building My Own Cities
Calvino’s descriptions of these cities are ethereal enough that I’m asked to construct my own images of the cities if I want them. Calvino has Polo describe one aspect of each city that is characteristic of it, and many of these are not concrete elements but rather a spirit of the city. Even when Polo specifically lists objects, as in this description of Zora, “[T]he copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower…” he uses few adjectives and my mind is free to make most of the picture, although I found myself grasping for these specifics to have something to begin building with. Of course if the physical description were essential to the experience he wanted to convey, Calvino would have written them in. This left me looking for what he was trying to convey.
With sentences like, “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: a foreignness of what you no longer are or possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places,” Calvino asks the reader to bring both meaning and interpretation into the story. What is it that you no longer are? What do you no longer possess? How is a space unpossessed or for that matter possessed? Long after I finished reading Calvino’s words, my mind worked over them.
Finding My Bearings Among the Grand Ideas
The difficulty for me lies in that much of the book is made up of these wide open ideas that I was trying to knit together and I found it hard to get my bearings. After the first ten cities I felt I was beginning to understand the world Calvino was creating. After the next ten I was looking for metaphors. After the full 165 pages I felt the meaning was so large I would never be able to grasp it and I was disheartened. This book was something I would have liked to have read one city at a time during a year or more just to absorb it—to fully explore all the possibilities of the cities and to construct the character and characteristics of each in my mind before moving onto the next. The cities were like the stones in Polo’s arch, but I wasn’t able to see the arch that the individual stones formed. The lasting impression of the book in my mind is instead the first line of Coleridge’s poem.
It is as though Calvino is using the words on the page to teach me to unlock those same words, for example Calvino writes, “But what enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words.” I often wondered how much of the story was written on the page and how much of it I was meant to bring to it as a reader. At the end of “Tamara,” Calvino writes, “However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs…you leave Tamara without having discovered it.” I finished the book as I left Tamara—not having discovered it.
Twice I have suggested that for me Calvino was speaking through Polo in this book. Perhaps it was the modern elements, perhaps it was the lack of emphasis on character development, but Polo did not present as a fully realized character as much as Kublai did. I enjoyed the way the conversations between Kublai and Polo framed the descriptions of the cities, although I kept looking for them to relate more closely to each other. Often I read hungrily to the next portion of dialogue.
This is one of those books that I think will percolate through my brain for quite some time. Invisible Cities reminded me that a reader will construct their own world out of whatever they are given and there is no need to be didactic about it unless I am purposefully so. While I as a reader (perhaps like Kublai) was expecting a more straightforward travelogue, because Calvino’s descriptions were compelling, I was willing to follow him as he described the essences of these cities (and therefore the essences of life) rather than their architecture.
If this review made you want to read the book, support indie booksellers (and reviewers—I get a commission) by picking up a copy of Invisible Citiesfrom Powell’s Books.