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Navigating the fantastical routes of Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'

Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities offers an opportunity to brush-up the history of relationship between China and Italy that goes beyond the pandemic perils.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : May 27, 2020

As the spread of COVID-19 hotspot gradually shifted from China to Italy during the first quarter of the year 2020, the inquiring mind was hell-bent to gauge this swing. Before the 21st century’s geopolitical nexus shared between the two nations and the low-cost labour migration from Wuhan to Lombardy set the course of the network exchange, the global connectivity if not as aggressive as today was part of the play that defined the roots of the famous Silk Route. The active trade route between the two geographically distant continents i.e. South East Asia and Europe survived many centuries through the second to the eighteenth.

Book cover of Invisible Cities | Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino | STIRworld
Book cover of Invisible Cities Image Credit: Courtesy of the author

My first encounter of the bond between these two countries came with the two protagonists - Venetian traveller Marco Polo and the Tartars emperor Kublai Khan - of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, published in 1972. If the cover of the book does not affirm the quality of the book, then the number of pages is nowhere the yardstick to measure the intensity of the read. The second part holds true for this book - with less than 150 pages it would force you to take long pauses before turning a page and often even moving to the next paragraph to understand the meaning of the unsaid ‘between the lines’. Even if the cities documented in the book are as fantastical as the Be'er Sheva, the travel accounts of the real-time Italian explorer Marco Polo and Kublai Khan’s court were made popular in the 13th century Italian Renaissance with a travelogue The Travels of Marco Polo written down by Rustichello da Pisa and Polo. Even the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge has dedicated a long poem Kubla Khan to the ‘slight disposition’ of the emperor of the Tartars who ruled as far as the regions of current day EuroAsia.

Continental pieces of literature favourite Venice | Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino | STIRworld
Continental pieces of literature favourite Venice Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

The invisible cities are addressed with the names, for instance - Euphemia, Hypatia, Irene, Octavia, Theodora, Ziara, that have been part of Greek mythology family or a variant of the names – Diomira, Isidora, Isaura, that could be traced to the Greek family tree. The 55 cities fall into the 11 intersections of the book: Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities and Hidden Cities. The labyrinth city space that comes to the mind while reading the passages hints at the spiralled human culture that runs as a suture between archaic and futuristic, history and fantastical and symbolism and utopia.

Venetian traveller Marco Polo | Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino | STIRworld
Venetian traveller Marco Polo Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Even before Polo offers a vivid account of the cities he has travelled as part of Tartar’s Empire, Khan could sense the impossible existence of such cities. Emperor’s initial inhibition around his empire, as a “formless ruin” whose “walls and towers (are) destined to crumble’, cast a long shadow on the rest of the book. Towards the middle of the book, Khan once again raises his doubts, “Your cities do not exist. Perhaps they have never existed. It is sure they will never exist again. Why do you amuse yourself with consolatory fables?” Not willing to deviate Khan’s melancholic mood, Polo later answers, “…. I am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that vanish to make room for it, cities that can never be rebuilt or remembered.” Their power of the imagination is rather too aware of the radiant interplay of light and shadow until the sun does not set on the empire.

Floating City, Venice | Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino | STIRworld
Floating City, Venice Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

The hint of poetry that runs through this prose comes from Calvino’s network with French group Oulipo, which was keen to outwit automatic writing by the Surrealists. The permutation and combination of poetic words against the backdrop of interchangeable cultural nexus that gave birth to conceptual writing was not short of poetic pleasures. To heighten the display of Calvino’s ingenuity, not confined to the literary technique, the continental pieces of literature favourite Venice, the city to spellbound is evoked. Khan inquires, “There is still one of which you never speak.” And Polo said, “Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice.” Once the floating city may now be sinking, but for writers, she is like an onion peel that surprises her visitors with a scale of variety that it houses.

Early sailing ship for voyages of discovery | Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino | STIRworld
Early sailing ship for voyages of discovery Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Largely, the text’s liminal position between modern and postmodern forms catches the attention of the readers and critic alike. Under the current context, while rereading the text, I was taken by surprise that in the past, I had been caught within the poetic-philosophy framework of the cities. Inevitably, it barred me from reading the book under the lens of political empire and sovereign logics. To have a better understanding of Polo’s narration, Khan deploys — chessboard and atlas — as the predetermined tools to lend a structure to Polo’s commentary. At every step, Polo defeats the purpose of the frames and questions its boundaries that refrain him from putting the blocks together.

Khan’s aspiration to systematically bracket Polo’s accounts echoes the political realities. Within the cohesive empire, the utopian ideal of the cities remains unachieved - whether aimed through the ontological set-up of Plato’s Ideal City in The Republic, or down the centuries, when Calvino sat to write about the cities, which could not be validated. To amend this, listen to Polo’s observation, “it is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear.”

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