Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
My Rating: ★★★★★
Marco Polo was a dreamer. He had great ambitions – wanting to be a traveller, a writer and a favored courtier. He wanted to live in the lap of luxury in his lifetime and in the best illustrated pages of history later. But he could only be a dreamer and never much more. Was it good enough? He never travelled anywhere and spent his life dreaming away in his Venice and is remembered to this day as the greatest explorer and travel writer of all time. How did that come about? It is a tale about the triumph of imagination over experience.
In Venice, that city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. Marco Polo was traveling in a little boat in that Venice and thinking of the Marco Polo he was meant to be when his imagination began to soar. All the travelogues he wanted to write started coming to his mind. A whole book of descriptions, all made of poems that would describe the beauty of this city like those waves reflecting it in varied shapes among their ripples. He watched the people moving along the streets, each eye seeing the same city differently, dependent on the angle of observation, and speaking in a language of symbols and images that is more powerful than words can ever be. The river is the story, the river is the book, arranged in perfect sinusoidal waves of its own and choosing as its reader the greatest of all appreciators, the book catches the splendor of the city and reflects it for your patient eyes in a sort of primitive cubism, leaving it to you to make out all its meaning and all its poetry and to see ultimately yourself in that reflection of all the cities that imagination could possibly build.
He started going on long voyages into his own mind, into the reflections of Venice, and into the reflections of those reflections. And then he wrote them down and he spoke of them and he sang of them. Men stopped to listen. They paid to hear him, first with time, then with gold, then with diamonds and great honors.
The Venetian was soon summoned to the court of the great Kublai Khan, who was also a dreamer. He envisioned himself to be the greatest of rulers, his kingdom expanding and pouring over the whole vast world until all the world was under him. He knew that information was power and he wanted to know of every single city under him, and of every city that was to be under him. ‘On the day when I know all the cities,’ he thought, ‘I shall be able to possess my empire, at last!’ He wanted Marco polo to be his eyes and ears and sent him off, with instructions to visit the most far flung and exotic provinces and to understand the soul of every city and to report back to him.
Marco Polo bowed every time and with great aplomb set off for his great voyages. Next week he would be in his beloved Venice, dreaming up the world, a world more real than reality, with all the ingredients needed to construct a city – memories, desires, signs, skies, trade, eyes, sounds, shapes, names and the dead. He spoke of old cities with gods and demons in it, of cities yet to be, with airplanes and atomic bombs coloring their movements, and of cities that should have been, with happiness and sorrow apportioned in balance. What separates the dream’s reality from the dreamer’s reality? He pondered on this mystery with every city. Maybe all successful men dream our lives as it should be while rotting in some sewer and maybe all unhappy men dream their unhappiness in life while rotting in some palace? Maybe we can only continue our chosen destinies and everything else is a dream. It is only invisible cities we can construct. And we can reflect on them only through imagination, and fiction. He knew his cities were real.
It took many years for the Great Khan to realize that Marco Polo wasn’t describing cities so much as the human mind and experience. He realized that every city, whether imagined by Marco Polo or constructed by planned blueprints or grown from slow accretion are all dreams given shape by human hands, by human ambition, by a desire for a future that can be shaped. In fact, Marco Polo’s cities started to seem to him more real than any he knew to be real. He learned that if men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a city in which to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.
Khan now knew how to travel, to really travel. He could now accompany the great explorer in his prophetic journeys. He could describe cities to Marco Polo and he could listen to him, even as he filled in the details. They could sit together in the courtyard and be silent and still travel through the most exotic and most truthful of cities.
Then came a day when Marco Polo had to inform the Khan, ‘Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.‘
‘There is still one of which you never speak.‘
Marco Polo bowed his head.
‘Venice,’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?‘
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.‘
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.‘
‘When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.‘ Khan made an attempt at looking angry but he knew his friend could see through faces and all such masks.
‘To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice. For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Venice under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Venice.’
‘You should then describe for me Venice – as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.‘
‘Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,‘ Polo said. ‘Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.’
Kublai looked at Polo. He understood. To tell a story you have to start from what you know best. You have to put your soul in the story and then build the flesh, the hair, the face and the clothes around it. The more stories you tell, the more of your soul you invest and lay bare to the world. When do you start fearing that you are as invisible as the cities you create? Kublai continued to look sadly at his friend.
Kublai asks Marco, ‘When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?‘
‘I speak and speak,‘ Marco says, ‘but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.‘
Then Khan knew that the sadness he felt so pressingly as he tried to force the wine down was not for his dear friend but for himself, he now knew that as he was listening to all the stories that Marco Polo was describing to him, he was only hearing stories that he was telling himself. The cities were all real, but they were not reflections of Marco Polo’s soul, they were not reflecting his Venice. They were reflecting Kublai Khan’s own soul, his own empire, ambitions, desires and fears.
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Post Script: I got a message from a goodreader asking me why I put up the whole story of the book without a spoiler warning…
Please go ahead and read the review without any fear of spoilers, the connection with the plot of the book (if any) is very tenuous – this is an imagined plot/backstory for a book that deliberately lacks one.