Saturday, June 22, 2013

invisible cities

Italo Calvino is so much fun to read. I've read his Cosmicomics, The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante) and his retelling of traditional fables in Italian Folktales.

Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili)* is a series of short stories based on the imagined conversations of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Polo has traveled the world in service of discovery and reporting his findings to Khan, the places he's been, what he has seen, and the extent and diversity in Khan's empire, most of which he has never seen. Polo described the cities he has visisted, not as places of a certain physical description, unless only in contrast to what he describes as the true nature of a particular city. The cities Polo describes are like none that appear on earth, or possibly like every city, or maybe only one city.

Calvino's insight into what makes a city is not only a sense of place. Rather it is a sense of what it is to be a city, driven in most cases by the feelings, actions, and thoughts of its inhabitants and visitors. Calvino describes cities as seen through Marco Polo's eyes as wondrous or depraved places, sad, self-involved, silly, or hopelessly lost in trying to be something they are not, or something they were, or want to be. There is a sense that what cities are is driven by how they are perceived, both from within and from without, regardless of time and place, or absolutely shackled to it. Calvino's descriptions of cities are often--and sometimes best--described by isolated incidents, little slices of time, or the shared moments of its people.

Calvino's view is at once micro- and macroscopic. His observations of dozens of make-believe cities sharpens one's knowledge of the real cities we've seen and experienced by giving us new tools with which to examine them. I find that I can learn more about the cities that I've visited just by thinking about them in new ways, and for that I'm grateful to Calvino and looking forward to my upcoming travels even more. In many ways, Invisible Cities is a lot like a travelogue of real places that we'll never see, and yet, see everyday.

Read this Book.

* I didn't see any translator credited, so I'm assuming it was done by the author himself.

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