Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino was the first book assigned for my “Issues in Creative Writing” class that has a focus on place in literature, and this couldn’t be a more perfect book for this topic. Calvino was an Italian-born writer and his books were translated to English by William Weaver.
My first impression of this book was honestly confusion, but that was entirely my fault because I accidentally skipped the first portion of the book that sets everything up. So if you read this book, DO NOT skip the first bit of italics–it is important to the story!
But after I realized my mistake, everything changed. This book is absolutely beautiful. The descriptions of the cities are fully realized scenes of incredible detail and intricacy. It is almost as though each section is a new character with new, inspiring ideas to bring to the work.
The whole plot of the book revolves around a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in the gardens of Khan’s palace. Marco Polo is describing all the cities he has visited in an effort to keep Khan’s mind off his crumbling empire.
The italic parts of the story were my favorite because they showed action and set up how you are to read the city descriptions that follow. They book end each chapter and give both the context and the mindset for which the sections can be read. They are also the most philosophical, at times becoming a bit like fortune cookies, but other times making such profound statements that it changes the way you look at things.
One line that stuck out to me was on the first page of Chapter 4 when Marco Polo says to Kublai Khan:
“Yes, the empire is sick, and, what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores.”
Something about this one line struck me as profound and very current, despite this book being written in 1972.
The way this book deals with place is by making it both a character and changing the interpretation of place in life. The way Marco Polo continues to describe these cities, but then say they are not real, or they are real, or they are possible or impossible or they can never be returned to or found, or were never found at all…It is all very philosophical.
But what comes across most strongly is the idea that place is people, because as we learn from Marco Polo that he has been describing one city, Venice, but also describing the vast empire of Kublai Khan.
I will definitely go back and read this book again in an effort to digest everything more fully, but at least on the first read the incredible language is enough to win me over.