Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Calvino writes in some of the most poetic prose in my recent memory. At times it borders on obscurity, but often it is beautiful almost beyond words.

Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan stories of the cities he's been to. A handful of cities are each vividly described in a few paragraphs, and then we return to the court, where Polo, diplomatic like a dragoman, tends to Khan's whims.

Are all of these cities metaphors for facets of a single city? Are the cities real? Has Polo even been to them? Are Khan and Polo really communicating non-verbally, in gestures and dances? Everything has an ethereal feel, and all of the aforementioned questions are raised by the author himself, and all turn out to be irrelevant.

At the same time, Calvino captures truths and conveys ideas with the emotional valence that only good fiction writers can. All the while, the descriptions of his cities are masterfully written, and incredibly imaginative. Some of my highlights follow.

A familiar feeling when traveling:

Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in that square.

Another familiar feeling:

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.

So imaginative:

You do not come to Euphemia only to buy and sell, but also because at night, by the fires all around the market, seated on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets, at each word that one man says—such as “wolf,” “sister,” “hidden treasure,” “battle,” “scabies,” “lovers”—the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies, lovers, battles. And you know that in the long journey ahead of you, when to keep awake against the camel’s swaying or the junk’s rocking, you start summoning up your memories one by one, your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles, on your return from Euphemia, the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every equinox.

And vivid:

Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the acton changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same. Mercury, god of the fickle, to whom the city is sacred, worked this ambiguous miracle.

High modernist failure mode (after a generation, residents of the planned city Perinthia gradually turn into by monsters):

Perinthia’s astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters.