In the twilight of a vast empire, Kublai Khan sits in his fragrant hanging garden with a foreigner, a traveler, a merchant: Marco Polo. The traveler tells the emperor stories of the cities of his far-flung empire, cities the emperor will now never see himself. But Marco Polo doesn’t just tell of what the cities have to offer in trade, or how they can be conquered and managed. He tells how they can be remembered, imagined, forgotten, and added like pearls on a string to the one perfect city of memory that is always growing and crumbling in the mind.
A little while ago, I reviewed Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, a book I found entrancing and virtuosic in its representation both of all the books that are or ever could be, and of the ideal Reader who absorbs them. This book, Invisible Cities, while utterly different in form and tone, has at least this link: it describes all the cities that are or ever could be, and the ideal traveler who sees and remembers them all.
I looked for some good quotations to show you what this book is really like, but it was hard to find a place to begin and end; I wound up wanting to quote the whole thing to you. The book is like a jewelbox, tiny gems flashing up from every page, each self-contained and lovely. There are cities of nightmare and of joy, hidden cities, cities of water and air and earth, cities of the dead, cities that grow from the center in concentric rings, like a tree, cities of endless suburbs, cities where nothing remains but the plumbing, cities hanging over chasms from a delicate network of ropes. I found out that in architecture school, students are often asked to read this book and then draw a city from Calvino’s description. It gives them a notion of what cities could be, linked to linguistics and human nature and the small gods, freed from physics and from what we normally see.
This makes the third thing I’ve read by Italo Calvino, and each thing has been completely unlike the others, except in the bottomless riches of his imagination. I can’t wait to see what’s next.