My first encounter with the brilliant Italo Calvino was If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel centered on the love of reading. Structured as the epic search for that novel’s ending, it takes the passionate reader towards more and more incompleted books. In that blistful atmosphere, Calvino places reading on a piedestal and disects what is it that we, readers, love so much about and what feelings it brings us.
I should have known that Calvino is not the conventional author, who will digest the information for you and then present it neatly on a plate. No wondering, no brain activity. I should have also known that his novels are more about experience than about content. It is near to impossible to say what the novel was about and yet when I read it I felt it made perfect sence. Yet, with all of those expectations of Calvino, I wasn’t in the least prepared for what expected me in Invisible Cities.
Framed as a conversation between Kublai Khan, one of the Great Khans of the Mongol Empire, and Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant traveler and explorer, Invisible Cities is a recollection of 55 incredible cities in the Khan’s vast empire. Having conquered many unknown lands, the Khan sends messengers to investigate his possessions and report back. Among these travellers, one stands out. The Venetian Marco Polo at the beginning doesn’t speak the Khan’s language, so he describes the cities with gestures, figures, and associations, leaving the details to the Khan’s imagination:
“I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the lsitener retains only the words he is expecting.”
Throughout this adventure Kublai Khan and Marco Polo form a special bond, in which their conversations might have been spoken or might have just been imagined. In fact, the Venetian describes not so much cities as the human mind and experience:
“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”
And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognises the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
Visiting each city of the Khan’s vast empire, one feels as if exploring a little part of the human nature. Polo describes not what he sees, but what he feels. For him cities are alive and breathing; they have a character; they develop throughout the years going from prosperity to desperation:
…a tin can, an old tire, an unraveled wine flask, if it rolls toward Leonia, is enough to bring with it an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years, withered flowers, submerging the city in its own past, which it had tried in vain to reject, mingling with the past of the neighbouring cities, finally clean.
“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.”
Polo, a passionated traveler, is famous for the book The Travels of Marco Polo, which describes stories of his travels in Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia. Recent scholars doubt whether he actually had travelled to these places, or whether he repeated stories he has heard. For me, Polo is the greatest traveler. His imagination, his in-depth perception and his desire to perceive with the senses, rather than see with the eyes, make him a better travel guide, than any true account of a city. Visiting a new city is much more about perceiving it with the heart and with the senses, rather than with the mind. What Marco Polo conveys to Kublai Khan is that his vast empire is not measurable by the amount of land or sheep, but by the amount of human feeling it provokes:
…because the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.
Marco Polo was a dreamer. Even if he never left Venice, his imagination takes him to places unknown and undiscovered. His prose and sense enchant, his story-telling bewitches, and even if he never left his boat in Venice, he has travelled more than anyone:
“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.”
Writing about Invisible Cities has been amongst the most difficult things I have ever done. Cities & Memory; Cities & Desire; Cities & Signs; Thin Cities; Trading Cities; Cities & Eyes; Cities & Names; Cities & the Dead; Cities & the Sky. Calvino is imaginative and powerful in his depiction of travelling through and within the human mind. And describing this feeling with words is not only next to impossible; it may also erase the memories and the feelings the way they were at that particular time:
“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.”