A few years ago, after I’d just read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, I began reading another book that Mr Lu brought home for me from his workplace library.
On page 200 of the book (Martin Amis’s Heavy Water and Other Stories), midway through a short story called Straight Fiction, the volume jumped to page 313 of a completely different book called Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! (or something similar) by Fannie Flagg. I know this because the new title and author were printed at the top of the page.
Despite the shortcomings of this new story, as a well-mannered reader I read on regardless. It seemed the polite thing to do, given that I had enjoyed If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller so much, which is, amongst other things, about a novel that during the printing a binding process gets mixed up with another novel, much to the frustration of its readers…
Anyway, Invisible Cities is an accumulation of descriptions of cities as told to Kublai Khan by Marco Polo.
The story has an unconventional form – neither novel nor collection of short stories. There is a kind of plot and the narrative feels as though it is going somewhere as layer after layer of city is added but this is mostly an illusion.
Though the cities are supposedly part of his empire, Kublai Khan will never see many of them.
In any case, Marco Polo’s descriptions are implausible, fanciful and anachronistic – Calvino lets his narrator travel freely in time.
Venice, Polo’s own city, seems to inform many of the depictions and unlikely though some cities may be, each has something recognisable or familiar-sounding about it.
In the end, the cities of Invisible Cities are all cities none of us will see, but we can imagine them.
It is indeed an unusual book. It is not altogether satisfying or cohesive but it is very beguiling. I read it in small bites, a few pages every night before drifting off to sleep, as a setting for my dreams. (I read it on the train to Turin too as I mentioned previously.)
My favourite city in the book is that of Tamara where signboards crowd the streets.
On the signboards are images of things that mean other things – a tankard indicates the tavern, for example. Then there are signs that indicate what is forbidden and what is allowed and there are statues that symbolise certain things. You can understand the different parts of the city and how it defines itself yet something of its true essence remains hidden.
It is one of those books that after only a few pages makes you go out into the world and look at things in an altered way.