Thursday, September 2, 2010


Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972) is not a book about cities. It's a book about people: Marco Polo and Kublai Khan,

and the residents of the imagined cities, the kings and the prostitutes and the adolescent and the anile, the strangers who meet everyday, the traders moving to and fro between the cities. But most of all, it's about the traveller- it's about his (or her, if you want to be politically correct) perceptions and dreams and desires and emotions, his past (which influences his present and future), his inferences, his expectations and his understanding of the city.

Calvino recognized the feel of the city- not the physical, but the emotional aspect of it. In fact, he is entirely brilliant at recognizing and naming and writing down emotions- this book really makes you feel. And so, when you remember the cities, you remember the metaphysical- the blend of fantasy and reality described. Sure, they might be supplemented by some physical aspects- like a clock tower here or a dome there, but these are also just ultimately symbols of the people who lived there and what the traveller was feeling at that point of time, visible symbols of an abstract idea. It's all about perception, and that is different even for fellow travellers.

The author imagined so many different cities, each with its own character and people and emotions, and Marco Polo appreciated them all differently. He talked of the beauty of the whole and of the beauty of the part. Often he looked at the cities from two different viewpoints, both his own; like the two sides of a coin. Other times one side was just a lie, a facade, and the real city was on the opposite face. Sometimes his descriptions were easy to understand, and sometimes you had to reread them to grasp the full meaning, the subtext. You then had to fill in the blanks, think about what you inferred from the thoughts and images and visuals.

Nothing can exist in isolation- or, at least, it can have no purpose in isolation. Here too, the cities are connected, yes, but we are always looking at the micro level of the city, and so are, I think, fooled into thinking of it as independent entity on its own. And so when Calvino does zoom out, it seems a revelation. He does this often, in fact; during the course of the book you suddenly realize a lot of things you always knew in the back of your head, but which you had forgotten while reading about these individual cities. But, also, when you look only at the macro scale, and forget these singular parts, you again lose sight of the plot.

Because there are so many short descriptions of so many cities, by the end of it they start running together and thus lose their differences. From the reader you become the jaded traveller, and Marco Polo and Kublai Khan’s analysis of the rise and fall of cities, why they are what they are, how they’re different from, and yet the same as, one another, really becomes the focal point. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not, and of course, in a way they were always the focal point, but what I’m saying is that whatever role the cities played before is lost by the end, at least for me.

The short chapters, if you can call them that, are very disjoint, but remain connected, I think, because of the writing style. It’s very, very descriptive, long sentences, generally simple language, but lots of new words -I learnt quite a few: ephebe, lavabo, auguries, sirocco, odalisques. Like most good books, the writing stays with you a while; even now, while I'm writing this, I know that my sentence structure and wording are somewhat inspired from the book.

I enjoyed this book, and though I probably won't ever reread it, right now I feel as if it'll stay with me for a long time. In a way, it's answered a question I've often thought about: can a traveller, an outsider and a foreigner, ever truly understand another city? When he visits this other city, how does he perceive it? What is different, if not different from his own?


Remembered this quote from Travel and Living, and along the way, found two more, which I think describe perfectly what this book is about:

“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller


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