Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is considered a classic and was originally published in Italy in 1972. The author himself was renowned around the world for being one of the twentieth century’s greatest storytellers. Invisible Cities has been translated into dozens of languages along with his other works If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and The Baron in the Trees. Calvino also published several collections of short stories and folklore before his passing in 1985.
Invisible Cities is a seemingly timeless tale, although it is set in the long-ago era of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The story begins with an incredibly unique narrative structure which deviates between a conversation between these two men as they spend time together when Polo isn’t busy traveling through Khan’s empire. Polo shares with Khan all that he has seen by describing to the ruler the various cities he has visited. The dialogue is often deep and filled with philosophical ponderings the two men struggle with. Between these moments of conversation, the narrative is broken into short chapters in which cities are described in rich detail.
Readers will enjoy the many different cities Polo describes. The prose used to paint the empire Khan reigns over is near flawless and brings to life each city in its own right. Despina, for example, is a unique port city located on both the edge of a desert and an ocean. Travelers arrive either by ship or camel, but, no matter what, they view the opposing desert as an oasis and respite from their own desert. Despina, because of this, is hailed as the “border city between two deserts” and illustrates the idea that what we don’t have is nearly always more appealing than what we have.
What these cities represent is debatable, and the book is cut into sections with various titles. “Cities & Desire,” “Cities & Memory,” “Cities & Death,” and “Cities & Signs” are only some of the many headings the reader is confronted with. Each one hints at what the different cities embody, and yet all implicate, or suggest, that essentially all cities are products of various human emotions.
This is apparent in some cities because of their unique creation or founding. One city was created and founded when various men were said to have dreamt of a beautiful maiden, and erected a city to match the city they pictured her in. The streets were often winding and ended in strange places and twisted back on themselves, an architecture design that reflected the founders’ hopes of trapping and catching the beautiful maiden. This city is certainly representative of human desire, and raises questions about the purpose not only of this particular city but of all cities.
The cities themselves are definitely the highlight of the novel, and their different constructions, histories, and unique populations make them each memorable in their own right. The conversation between Khan and Polo is what creates the central plot, and is integrated into the book between sections of the city description. Though we never truly learn much about the characters, we can see them reflected through the way they regard the different cities and, in Khan’s case, what he seeks to gain by hearing of all the cities. These brief tidbits of information are few and far between, however, by the end of the novel it becomes clear that the central plot is meant to raise more of a philosophical question about human and the existential crisis as opposed to a central conflict complete with a resolution.
Credibility on the part of the two main characters is also questionable, but almost pleasantly so. The contrasting points of view between Khan and Polo as they discuss the city gains the reader’s attention, especially when we learn Khan’s desire to know the cities is to essentially use this newfound knowledge to further build his empire. Polo’s own motives are more obscure, but as the novel progresses, the reader is able to discern that what Polo seeks is something perhaps not in the empire but within himself instead.
Calvino’s novel is certainly well crafted, the rich descriptions and prose-like language used from start to finish cement it as a pleasant read for the senses. The questions raised, however, are almost exclusively philosophical in nature and suggest not a conflict between Khan and Polo but a conflict that is bigger than them and the empire itself. I would highly recommend this book to those seeking to read something sophisticated, but advise all who pick it up to read it slowly.