Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvelous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating fine details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Invisible Cities is one of the strangest, most haunting books I’ve ever read. There’s no particular plot; every page is just a short, lyrical description of an imaginary city Marco Polo passes on his travels. Some of these cities are more realistic than others – marble palaces, frangipane trees, bustling markets. Others are completely impossibly and theoretical – a city delicately and entirely strung up between two cliff walls that knows one day it will fall into the abyss; a city that breathes earth instead of air; a city that is so crowded that people blot out the place and even the sky.

One of my favorite cities is Beersheba, whose residents believe in a heavenly, celestial city above made of gold and silver and glittering diamond, and a hell-like city underground made of waste and tar and trash. They strive every day to worship the city above and abhor the city below; but what they don’t know is that their greed and superficiality has blinded them, and that the city below is actually the one made of gold, while the city above is made of trash.

Intent on piling up its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet aflutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven 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.

Invisible Cities

Even though it’s short (only 160 pages or so), it isn’t the type of book you read in one sitting. I found that I could only digest a few cities at a time, in order to think about them more closely and visualize them in my mind. Maybe that’s how it was meant to be read – slowly, savoring every city individually and appreciating all the beauties or horrors of each one.

P.S. Artist Colleen Corradi Brannigan painted each city. The works are chaotic and stunning.