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Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

October 21, 2012

This is a collection of imagined conversations between the explorer Marco Polo and the aging emperor, Kubla Khan. The Khan’s empire is so vast that he asks Polo to tell him of the cities under his rule that he will never be able to visit himself. Polo’s fantastical descriptions of these cities make up most of this book.

The cities are like dreams: spectacular, epic and wildly imaginative. There is Zaira, the city that holds its history within each of its adornments. Despina, the city that resembles a ship if approached from land and a camel if viewed from the sea. Octavia, the “spider-web city,” suspended by ropes between two mountains. Zora, a city that represents knowledge itself. A city with a necropolis twin:

No city is more inclined that Eusapia to enjoy life and flee care. And to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground. All corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue their former activities.

They get progressively more fantastical. There is Zobeide, a city inhabited by men who all had an identical dream in which they pursued a beautiful, elusive woman. They each set out to find the woman and instead found each other.

There’s Perintia, designed by astronomers according to the movement of the heavens—only now, after generations, Perinthia is a hell-on-earth, full of “cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men, bearded women,” and the “astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters.” In other words, they must denounce either their science or their religion.

The book is simple in its concept, but each chapter has an underlying theme. Some are statements about cities themselves—how all cities are in a way one city yet, at the same time, any one city can morph and present a different story, perspective or experience to each inhabitant. And some themes are about humanity in general—about the way we perceive the world around us, the way we try to control and shape it. The way we record our history and remember our heroes.

This is not a book for those looking for strong plot. It’s more like a volume of poetry. But I’ve never read anything like it. I loved reading a chapter or two before bed every night, and when I finished I wished there were more cities to explore.

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