Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" is a poetry-in-prose book, a series of descriptions, told by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, the oriental emperor. As Marco travels round the world on the Emperor's business, his job is not to bring back treasure, but stories - the accumulated wealth of his imagination. The book has no plot and no characters, except for the two mentioned above and the described cities, all named after women - Raissa, Irene, Valdarda, Phyillis, Chloe...
"In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the street are all strangers. At each encounter they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no-one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping."
Even though Khan insists, Polo never talks about his own city, Venice. He only talks about strange, magical, invisible cities that nobody else ever saw. And yet, Khan cannot avoid the feeling that by telling him about those nonexistent places, Polo does describe, bit by bit, the city they both really think of.The book consists of fifty-five extremely short city descriptions, embedded within an intellectual duel between Polo and Khan.
"From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive's trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again."
Is this the mysterious Venice, the city that unravels itself according to its viewers or just an imaginary city? Those who have been to Venice know that it is a city you can so easily build for yourself, at your own pace and imagination; it is unlike any other city or unlike any other impression someone might have on it. And yet, no matter how you see it, it is the city that best combines art and life. Your life with the art you've chosen for yourself.
“When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gavel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view:
a caper bush jutting from the fortress’ walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. “Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains,” you cry, with regret at having to leave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.”
Read for the Venice in February Reading Challenge.