Lost & Found in Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'

It’s 4pm on a Friday afternoon. I sit alone at the dining room table. There’s a cheap, half-finished bottle of Sauvignon Blanc standing incongruously to the right of my open laptop. I stare at the laptop willing words to appear on the stark white screen. In one hand I have a book, its pages covered in highlighting with notes in the margins, in the other, an almost empty glass of wine. My hope is that I will somehow bring order to the indiscernible mass of ideas swirling in my head. Or maybe that’s just the alcohol. The names repeat endlessly – Esmeralda, Despina, Hypatia, Chloe, Clarice – 55 names, 55 places, or just one place?

The cause of my consternation is the book I hold in my left hand: Invisible Cities. A short, unusual travel novel written in 1972 by Italian author and Communist devotee, Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985).  I’ve read and reviewed literature composed of abstract philosophical ideas and complex language before – Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Voltaire’s Candide, the complete works of William Shakespeare, to name only a few. However, none have left me with such an overwhelming sense that I have only just scratched the surface to expose the hidden gems within the text. The book is captivating, not for its plot or storyline, which are glaringly absent, but simply for its ability to touch a deeper part of the soul and arouse that magical sense of curiosity which is so often lacking in our fast-paced and information-saturated society. I realise I am a traveller, treading a unique path through the pages of Invisible Cities.

Although Calvino’s novel is considered to be from the travel genre, my initial interest in Invisible Cities was sparked by the historical aura surrounding Marco Polo and Kublai Khan as it appealed to the history lover in me. On the surface, the book is a series of fictional interactions occurring between a 13th century Tartar Emperor called Kublai Khan and a young Venetian explorer, Marco Polo. Khan senses that his Empire is coming to an end and is understandably troubled by it. Only through Polo’s accounts of his travels to remote provinces is Khan “able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing” (p. 5). The pattern the Emperor is referring to is Polo’s expeditions to 55 cities across the Empire. Narrated in lyrical prose, and framed by philosophical dialogue between Khan and Polo, descriptions of the 55 cities are divided between 11 thematic categories, including ‘Cities & Memory,’ ‘Hidden Cities,’ and ‘Cities & the Sky.’ Polo’s cities are enticing and fascinating places, where things are never quite as they seem. In the crystalline blue lagoons of the city of Hypatia, “crabs were biting the eyes of the suicides, stones tied around their necks” (p. 40).

At first it is difficult to engage with Invisible Cities as every ‘conventional’ element you would expect from a travel novel is missing. There is no clear storyline, little character development, and no signposted route or final destination to guide the reader to a tidy conclusion. Calvino also appears to be allergic to small, simple words and phrases, opting instead for rich imagery and daring use of metaphors, for example: “A voluptuous vibration stirs Chloe, the most chaste of cities,” in an unending “carousel of fantasies” and “ephemeral dreams” (p. 44). A combination of complex vocabulary, double meanings and a disorientating style of lyrical prose makes for a slow, time-consuming read. Take Marco Polo’s account of what he calls the “true essence” of Anastasia: “Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses…your labour which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave” (p. 10). Despite the novel's slim size, I found myself having to pause every two or three paragraphs to process what I had just read.

The beauty of discovery lies in persistence. At some indiscernible point, you realise that Calvino is not merely describing cities, at least not in the way we normally think of cities as physical constructs of concrete and steel. Calvino’s cities are creations formed from ideas, thoughts, and questions. Kublai Khan plays the role of a model reader within the text, guiding and shaping our own range of responses as readers of Invisible Cities. Like Khan, a reader must abandon any preconceived notions of what a travel book should be, and instead “take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours. Or the question it asks of you.” (p. 38). Only by freeing yourself “from the images which in the past had announced to me the things I sought” can you succeed in “understanding the language of Hypatia” (p. 41), and ultimately, Invisible Cities.

To me, Invisible Cities does not contain a single meaning, instead it is composed of three intertwined threads of questions and ideas. Firstly, Invisible Cities is a critique of human nature. Many of Polo’s cities reflect some aspect of human behaviour, and serve as metaphors for vanity, greed, lust, desire, etc… In Beersheba, the citizens are so “intent of piling up carats of perfection” that it is “only when [they] shit, [that they are] not miserly, calculating, greedy” (p. 101). The people within cities are so consumed by their own internal weaknesses that they are blinded to happiness. In Raissa, the “city of sadness,” beneath the surface of bad dreams characterising daily life there is “a happy city unaware of its own existence” (p.134). The question Calvino seems to be asking the reader to grapple with is a big one: How then should we live?

As well as being a study of humanity, Invisible Cities is also a set of cautionary tales which warn of what will happen if we, as humans, do not change how we act within our cities. The lines which separate past, present, and future become blurred as Khan contemplates an empire “covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed with wealth and traffic…swollen, tense, ponderous” (p. 65).  There are clear references to capitalism, suburban development, and consumerism throughout the text. The city of Trude provides an example of the negative effects globalisation can have on culture. Globalisation has the potential to create a world without differences “covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes” (p. 116). As Polo reminds the Emperor: “If you want to know how much darkness is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance” (p. 51). The warnings found in Invisible Cities are both timeless and timely. Like the citizens of the spider-web city of Octavia, we must recognise that “the net will only last so long” (p. 67). The question is: How long?

Invisible Cities is however, at its core, still a travel book. Although Polo seemingly begins by describing different cities he has visited, it soon becomes clear that he is actually talking about one place: Venice. “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice…To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak first of a city that remains implicit” (p. 78). For Polo, Esmeralda, Despina, Hypatia, Chloe, and Clarice are all aspects of a single city. The true value in Invisible Cities lies not so much in its vivid imagery or fascinating metaphors, but in the fact that the 55 cities also merge to become a single city for each individual reader. For me, that city is Auckland. My reading of Invisible Cities became implicitly based on impressions of my home city. The sprawling urban mess of Auckland is like Penthesilea which “spreads for miles around, a soupy city diluted in the plain; pale buildings back to back…rusty suburb workshops and warehouses,” where “you advance for hours and it is not clear to you whether you are already in the city’s midst or still outside it” (p. 141). And so the journey is not Marco Polo’s alone, I was also a traveller, treading a unique path through the pages of Invisible Cities.  

For the first half of Invisible Cities I was lost and bewildered, but Calvino took me on a truly remarkable and interesting journey, awakening within me an insatiable sense of curiosity about my own city. The novel is an epistemological puzzle and its beauty lies in the fact that the puzzle is constructed slightly differently every time you pick up the book. Although Calvino’s style is at first disorientating, if you are looking for something pleasingly different or incredibly thought-provoking, I strongly recommend this little gem. Calvino freely invites the collaboration of the reader – it is up to you to shape your own experience of the text, filling in the blanks, imagining and substituting your own city in the margins just as Kublai Khan is so eager to do.

It is best, I believe, to read Invisible Cities like a traveller, slowly and luxuriously with a glass of wine in one hand, and as if you have all the time in the world.