Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Invisible Cities

This little book by Italo Calvino was easily my favourite novel of 2007. Consisting of a series of conversations between Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324/5) and Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the majority of the book focuses on Polo's brief (one to three page) descriptions of 55 cities allegedly found in the Khan's empire. Hilarious, tragic, insightful, surreal and philosophical, each city is really a thought experiment, a prose poem about our relationship to memory, desire, death, dreams, signs, fate and the spaces we inhabit. Here is one example. I might post some more in time. As you'll notice, the cities are not limited to the 13th century, nor even to the realms of possibility, though some come too close to reality to be entirely comfortable.

Cities & Memory • 5
In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old post cards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared with the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one’s eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what is has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was.

Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.


lachlanb said...

This reminds of Peter Carey's short Story 'American Dreams.' Mr Gleason builds a perfect model of an Australian country town- complete with people in their houses. American tourists visit and demand that people in the town act like the model's representation of them.

I've just read Calvino's Mr Palomar and Difficult Loves. Both are amazing: the way he dwells on human situations, interrogating their depths, reasons within reasons, a kind of rationale for irrational behaviour.

byron smith said...

I love that Carey story (the whole collection, actually). As for Calvino, I've only read If on a winter's night a traveller, which was a lot of fun, but didn't have the same depth as IC.