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By Italo Calvino Invisible Cities (New Ed) [Paperback] Paperback – January 16, 1997
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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.
Civilization, we call it – the abiding construction ever upwards in a richness unto glory.
But things are not lasting, not eternal nor stable. They rise and fall and rise again – like the cities of Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities”.
Worse still, things are not even consistent. Like Calvino’s cities – Kublai Khan’s surprise that his guest is just describing Venice over and over and over; future and past, wealth and ruin, death and rebirth, destruction and renewal; the traveler afraid to say the name of his own home: “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased (…). Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” We are all afraid of losing our home; afraid to say the names of the things which we love lest they fade away, ephemeral in the light we shine upon them. And we too are afraid to speak about what it is that we love, lest our enemies notice that which is in our hearts and target their evil toward its destruction.
As if they already don’t; already aren’t.
The irony is not lost on me that I came to learn of Calvino’s masterpiece in an article about Aleppo – that oldest of Mesopotamian cities. That place where Abraham milked his sheep to feed the poor. Important in the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian as well – the Amorites and the Hittites and the Persians. The capital of Sham; the center of civilizations rising and falling and recurring. The end of Kublai Khan’s silk road; visited by Marco Polo to be sure, and described to the Khan in all its ancient glory.
“Aleppo has fallen” – how many times has that gravid phrase been repeated since the misty days of prehistory? From the days when writing was done upon clay taken from the Queiq River using a stylus carved perhaps from wood taken from the ancient forests of Lebanon. Will it rise again, after its recent destruction? Time will tell.
Yes, history rises and falls – and it is for those of us who fear to utter the names of our own cities, lest they too fall away and are spoken of no more – to understand why, and to announce to the world that which is good and true and abiding. For, “…the inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
I, for one, do not accept the inferno – nor will I become a part of it.
But if you are looking for a different kind of book, then Invisible Cities is worth a try.
The story (if you can call it that) centers on Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan of the cities he has seen on his travels. As the novel progresses, it's not clear whether Marco Polo actually saw the cities, if he's making it all up, or even if Kublai Khan believes any of what he's hearing or not.
Marco Polo describes fantastic cities, painting a vivid portrait in just a page or two. One sits on stilts, one's boundaries are ever-shifting boundaries, one is simply pipes and plumbing with no walls or roofs. Another is described as a carpet with twisting patterns which are really a map of the city. Everyone sees it differently, depending on what twists of fate have come into their lives. Following that theme, another city is built on a dream of chasing a woman through a town, another uses the stars as its blueprint.
What makes this book so enjoyable is the sheer gorgeousness of the writing. The descriptions of the cities are almost like prose poems. There is lush detail ("the river green with crocodiles"), or this sentence:
"And yet, in Raissa, at every moment there is a child in a window who laughs at seeing a dog that has jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the top of the scaffolding, "Darling, let me dip into it," to a young serving maid who holds up a dish of ragout under the pergola, happy to serve it to the umbrella-maker who is celebrating a successful transaction, a white lace parasol bought to display at the races by a great lady in love with an officer who has smiled at her taking the last jump, happy man, and still happier his horse, flying over the obstacles, seeing a francolin flying in the sky, happy bird freed from its cage by a painter happy at being painted it feather by feather, speckled with red and yellow ..."
Another memorable city waged war on fleas and termites, and various species of mutant rats, not suspecting that it was threatened by monsters: sphinxes, griffons, dragons, basilisks and more, all seeking to possess the city. This brought to my mind the image of our own society, obsessed with trivia, ignoring the real issues that threaten our way of life.
This, I think, is the key to the book: the images it creates in our minds. Invisible Cities isn't a quick read, but one to be savored. I admit, there were some passages I read three or four times and still didn't get. Others were so vivid, like the one quoted above, I could see the crowds in the streets, individuals living their lives, acting and reacting to each other. This is a book that invites you to read between the lines and form your own images.
Calvino's intent may have been summarized by Marco Polo. "`I speak and speak,' Marco says, `but the listener retains only the words he is expecting...It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear.'"