The Chronicle of a Thousand Books

Being the Chronicle of a Thousand Books, kept faithfully and diligently by thy humble servant, in this most excellent repository of worthy works, the marvellous and justly famous Library of Mare Caelorum. "He who measures his wealth in books shall never be robbed of it, not by fire nor knaves, if only he should preserve them in his memory."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Invisible Cities

"Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks - ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes - which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret; one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant's beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched, a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain ..." - Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (Harvest Books, 1978)

A cardinal virtue of reading fantasy as a child or young adult is that we're not yet familiar with the common patterns of storytelling. Even the most tired clich├ęs are fresh and new, as we're able to lose ourselves in the story, not yet burdened by the questionable gift of being able to anticipate what comes next in the formula or equation. As we get older, it becomes more and more impossible to maintain this wonderment. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, is the first fantasy I've come across in my adult life that easily recaptures this lost feeling of immersion.

Abandoning all pretense of plot, Calvino creates a diary of impossible places - an invented memoir of a hundred and more dream and nightmare cities colonized only by impressions, odd details, and ideas. The only characters are Marco Polo and his lord the Great Khan of the Mongols, the only dialogue is what passes between them after every few sketches.

"Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind's phantasms.

'On the day when I know all the emblems,' he asked Marco, 'shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?'

And the Venetian answered: 'Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.'"


There is no story, just glimpses of enigmas. No resolution, just a succession of strange vistas punctuated by discursive conversations on illusions, that mean even less than the illusions themselves. No climax, just the vague outlines of a vast and limitless atlas, and a closing riddle of what lies beyond the white spaces on the maps.

Invisible Cities could easily be mischaracterized as a product of the so-called "magical realism" school - which, to my mind, is just a fancy, tarted-up name for one small variant of "serious" fantasy (otherwise known as pseudo-surrealism), before the broader genre became fashionable on its own terms, and in its own right. But that would do it and Calvino an injustice. The book is much more. It is an admirable attempt at an endless fable, and achieves the greatest goal of make-believe books: it gets the reader thinking about the world it created beyond the pages themselves.

Equipped by birth and upbringing to be an observer and outsider (he was a Protestant born in Cuba to Italian parents, and raised in Italy as a child), and seduced by utopian dreams in his adulthood (he was a partisan in the war, and later a communist, but left the party in 1957 due to the banal and murderous corruption of Stalinism), Calvino ably translated the impulse to escape that infused millions of Europeans after the war. (Refreshingly, for a former Red, this particular book doesn't suffer from the tint of his former politics.)

Instead of crossing the Atlantic like many of his countrymen, he chose emigration to worlds of invention, as his body of work testifies to. Invisible Cities lets even the most jaded reader become lost in the fantastic cityscapes, with complete unconcern for what "comes next", happily going along for the ride with no final destination in sight.

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