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Invisible Cities Paperback – May 3, 1978

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Editorial Reviews Review

"Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his." So begins Italo Calvino's compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which "has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be," the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvelous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take.


Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant. -- Gore Vidal, The New York Review of Books

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 165 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (May 3, 1978)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156453800
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156453806
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (211 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

172 of 176 people found the following review helpful By T. Tezer on June 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Obviously my review is as much about the Kindle edition of this book as it is about the book itself. I found the novel poetic, beautiful, deep, and thought provoking. I am not a fan of magical realism, but this is an enjoyable read, and having traveled extensively, I can identify with descriptions that touch upon the less-than-concrete impressions that are left by each new place seen or experienced.

That said, the Kindle edition is an embarassment. The publisher rushed a part-time intern into a room with a scanner and an OCR program and made sure they clocked out on time. Maybe they should have thought about proof reading? Italicized words appear randomly throughhout the text, obviously not intentionally. Perhaps that's supposed to be a tribute to the author's first name? But the words that are simply mis-recognized by the OCR software are the worst: "faces" becomes "feces" tipping us off to the standard of quality the publisher had in mind for this edition. Come on you cheap bastards, just hire someone to proofread it before you throw it out there as a Kindle edition.
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146 of 154 people found the following review helpful By Mark Valentine on September 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
Once more, I have grown in my appreciation and respect for Calvino's works. He writes using precise words and never quits until he has portrayed an image in sentences. He is inventive, an original. This short novel has incredible power not for plot, but for characterization, imagery, and sheer force contained in the words.
The characterization works like a photographic negative. He never tells us of Genghis Khan or Marco Polo; no descriptions or personality traits given. What he uses is their ideas and the things that they talk of to describe what kind of people they are. Thus, it is through their impressions on the template that I could tell what kind of characters they are. That is good, confident writing, I think.
The imagery is powerful too. Calvino strives to make his cities visible in the imagination. This is one trait that I think will make him be read years and years from now.
Take your time with this novel. In fact, I don't think that it is possible to even race through it. It's shortness is misleading, it is very dense and laden with vitality and deserves to be savored in enjoyment and not raced through in the reading. But if you can slow down and enjoy it, I think you will find it to be well worth the effort.
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 30, 1998
Format: Paperback
So here I was, flying north, thinking about themes such as axioms, storytelling, pattern recognition, and facilitation from the grandest, most broad vantage point. Before me, this short book of short stories based upon conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Invisible Cities is very simple on the surface. It contains several series' of short stories - 1 to 3 pages in length - that chronicle Polo's excursions into cities throughout the domain of The Khan. The stage is Khan's garden, where Polo has been summoned to report on his journies. Each series of stories is bound by a brief contextual passage, usually a dialogue between Polo and Khan about the nature of Polo's journies and their meaning. From this simple structure, Calvino weaves a rich tapestry of patterns, some obvious (take a look at the table of contents) some very subtle (read between the lines when you read the passages that bridge one section to the next).
Calvino is a masterful story teller - with an uncanny abililty to create space, setting, scene and mood. I found Invisible Cities a personal, intimate read. Marvelous.
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63 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Guillermo Maynez on October 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
In this wonderful litle book, an imaginary Marco Polo tells an equally fictional Kublai Khan the story of his many travels through the Mogol Empire, and all the cities he has known. They both know it's all in Polo's brain, but who cares, the imaginary cities are so vivid, so visually possible, that the emperor keeps demanding more of them.
Calvino really lets his imagination get high, to create the most bizarre, beautiful, horrible and crazy cities as any you yourself can imagine. Cities of all places, ages, shapes and peculiarities come to your mind. Calvino is really good at depicting impossible places, but also places that somehow remind you of real cities you've been to.
A remarkable work of imagination, well written, this is the ideal book to read in a dreamy scenery, but also in one of these quasi-impossible cities we humans have created, the craziest ones, such as NY, LA, Tokyo, Mexico City, etc.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on April 19, 2009
Format: Paperback
Perhaps one of the oddest things about the reception of "Invisible Cities" is that it was a finalist for a Nebula Award. Although mathematics and architecture figure prominently, the book really isn't science fiction, and while it is certainly fanciful, it's a stretch to call this meditation a fantasy novel. Instead, Marco Polo's descriptions of 55 imaginary cities are clever, whimsical prose poems, mixing brainy puns and shrewd aphorisms. Calvino constructs cities the way Poe assembles dreams; "Invisible Cities" is the full-length work Borges never wrote.

The comparison to Borges is instructive, because what works in the short form begins to show signs of strain in this novella. Calvino sprinkles bons mots and truisms liberally amongst the tightly structured chapters (whose interwoven, enumerated headings might build, some readers argue, a sine wave or a skyline or something meaningful). Reading the book is to waver back and forth between admiring the clever wordplay and recognizing its cynical candor: "The city displays one face to the traveler arriving overland and a different one to him who arrives by sea." "There is no language without deceit." A city made entirely of pipes; a city divided for the dead, the living, the unborn; a city whose trash expands outward, trapping its citizens within; a city that looks just like the city you just left; a city that exists only in old postcards depicting a different city that never really existed--you'll recognize aspects of every city in each of these cities, or (more precisely) you'll recognize Venice.
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