Invisible cities | Italo Calvino

Yay, another Calvino about reading and writing and signs and communication, full of riddles, logic games and stories within stories within stories. Hurrah! There’s no plot, just sets of very brief descriptions of baffling cities provided by the explorer Marco Polo, interspersed with dialogue between him and the emperor Kublai Khan.

My hot take is the cities are texts, that each city is a text to be read, that their significance lies not in their architectural typology or socio-economic characteristics but in the symbolic meaning they hold, the interpretations they offer, the world that lies within. Yet the cities exist in isolation from one another, divorced from their landscape context, divorced from time and history, dots on a map of an empire. What do they all mean? All that connects them is being visited (in reality or in his imagination, you decide) by Polo.

Marco Polo is the ultimate unreliable narrator. We can take it from the title that these cities may not be exactly real – but is it all fabrication? Are they all really just reimaginings of Venice? Why does he tell every audience different things? How does he know about airports? Does it even matter? And why ‘Invisible’? Invisible to Kublai Khan, who will never see the furthest reaches of his vast empire, or invisible as in they exist only in Marco Polo’s imagination? Questions, questions.  

And what of Kublai Khan, by turns captivated, exasperated, craving the traveller’s stories but also wanting Polo’s wild tales to conform to his maps and official knowledge? Is Khan the perplexed reader and Polo the trickster author, always one step ahead? Authors create fiction – untruths in other words – but we want credibility as well, untruths that we want to imagine as possible or at least enjoyably imaginable. Polo offers none of this, but still Khan needs more stories, while in obvious disbelief. It’s the reader-author relationship in a nutshell, Polo toying with Khan’s credulity in the same way Calvino plays delightfully with ours.