An intense, spiritual, and graceful novel, Invisible Cities is a small book in its physicality but a grand one in its astonishing penmanship. Italo Calvino’s ability to graphically paint the small subtleties of cities and all that they hold is akin to the small strokes an artist paints in illustrating minute but nevertheless important details of a work of art: barely noticeable but decisively important. Such is the depth of the ideas that Calvino throws up, the Vintage Classics edition of Invisible Cities in my possession – a mere 147 pages with an abundance of space – has taken this otherwise swift reader a good few months to read. And still I do not understand entirely the meaning behind it, which demands of me to revisit the pages once again. To in fact dwell in the cities as if I am there myself. It is an extended stay that I am more than happy to endure.
The basic premise of the book follows a conversation between the real life historical figures Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, interjected with Polo’s descriptions of the cities he visits, which are in fact all of one city, that of Venice. There is, in effect, no real narrative, although in some ways it reads like a conventional story in that it feels like there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perhaps it is the book’s graphic detail, it’s rich use of words, it’s poetic philosophies, and it’s vivid imagination – which causes you to cease reading and begin reflecting – that creates a disjointed but utterly smooth story. In any respects, it is an entirely new model of story telling, unorthodox and imaginative, and thus a seminal piece of literature.
It allows us time to think, to forget, to casually saunter invisible cities that remind us of our own homes and of the cities that we may visit on holidays, but with more meaning, new light, and another way of looking beyond the facade be it abhorrent or magical. What we discover is something pure and human, a world that is the image of the mixed blessings of life. It doesn’t leave us disheartened though, but enlightened and calm.
Credit must be given to William Weaver for translating the sweet cadence of the Italian writing into an equally rhythmic English version. Not only is it a most pleasurable read, it is also a testing one with Calvino employing a huge cast of words to descriptive perfection. Indeed, it has been a long time that I have had to house a cumbersome dictionary beside me to clarify the cornucopia of words that escape my immediate knowledge. It is a pleasure which is not lost on me for one who takes joy from literature can only feel illumination in the discovery of new levels to language.
Brilliant and deeply affecting, Invisible Cities is a staggering work of fiction.