Invisible Cities is full of a poetic sense of place—presented as Marco Polo’s detailed accounts about cities in Kublai Kahn’s crumbling empire—I see them as I read them, each chapter contains truths gleaned from the observations of the human experience. It is a book of layers—intricate, sedimentary points of view—cities constructed of the ephemeral and ethereal –cities and memory, cities and desire, and signs, and names—thin cities, trading cities, continuous cities, hidden cities—cities and eyes, cities and the sky, cities and the dead—lyrical and imaginative. Each peopled with the living and dead, rich and poor, happy or sad, and each person experiences life based on what they have going on within their own skin. The details are extraordinary and lovely—even the ugly is tenderly described, there can be beauty in ugliness if you tell it right.
John Gardner called Calvino a Fabulist—one of the best—I have to agree, he knew how to tell a good story or depending on the way you look at it—a darn good lie. Kublai Kahn called out Marco Polo at one point none too happy about being fed bullshit—Marco Polo calmly and ever so politely told him to shut the fuck up and listen—or not. He didn’t have to tell him anything, he could go anywhere to tell his stories, so the Great Khan let him continue as they mused together about their own existence and perused maps of the world as they knew it—or not. (Yes, it can make your head hurt thinking about it.)
Goodness knows many stories are truths fed through veins full of the blood of lies. Calvino trespasses beyond the conventional telling of a story, running headlong into meadows and streets of metaphysical experiences—the uncertainty of existence, the limitations of reality do make it seem pointless at times, yet the whimsy of exploring outside the usual parameters and delving into the imagination is a beautiful thing if you can grasp it—hold on tight—you are now a mental traveler, step off the sidewalk, walk in the grass—enjoy the view, it is profound standing on the cliff edge of the things you never seen before—or thought. The intensity of Calvino’s writing is for dreamers who are awake—more awake than others—sometimes too much knowledge paralyzes our natural innocence—even as I read, I heard voices of naysayers squawking , “No, that’s not how it is—where it is—what it is—where are you going with this? Come on, man, knock me over the head with the truth of what was…” Sometimes reading a good book is about trust. I have learned to step into a Calvino book as if ignorant of everything, and simply believed—there is more joy this way. A good writer is a master of telling yarns. A yarn—I always loved that term—imagining that a story is a big ball of yarn, twisted and pulled, some layers tight, some loose, overlapping every which way, burying the beginning, but the end is loose and likely to come unraveled if not tucked in neatly or already attached to the knitting needle—taking shape. A ball of yarn—a novel in the making.
…Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is a wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.—Page 8
It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form. If you go by whistling, your nose a-tilt behind the whistle, you will know it from below: window sills, flapping curtains, fountains. If you walk along hanging your head, your nails dug into the palms of your hands, your gaze will be held on the ground, in the gutters, the manhole covers, the fish scales, wastepaper. You cannot say that one aspect of the city is truer than the other...—Page 66
In Raissa, life is not happy. People wring their hands as they walk in the streets, curse the crying children, lean on the railings over the river and press their fists to their temples…Inside the houses it is worse, and you do not have to enter to learn this: in the summer the windows resound with quarrels and broken dishes…And yet, in Raissa, at every moment there is a child in a window who laughs seeing a dog that has jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the top of the scaffolding, “Darling, let me dip into it,” to a young serving maid…Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence. –these four pieces are smatterings from pages 148-149.
In Beersheba’s beliefs there is an element of truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial and one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency…This is the celestial city, and in its heavens long-tailed comets fly past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.—these two pieces are from pages 112-113
From my words you will have reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I wanted to warn you about is something else: all the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.—Page 163
I could fiddle around all day with more quotes gleened from dog-eared pages, but I will stop here—I highly recommend this book and Calvino’s other works just because they are good for you—for us to read and enjoy them for what they are—he has left this world behind, but he left us with these beautiful treasures. What a gift he was given, and what a gift he gave to us.