Invisible Cities

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Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili) is the title of a book by Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Cuban-born Italian fabulist author and journalist who spent most of his adult life living in San Remo, Italy. The book consists of a series of dream-like tales told by the youthful Venetian traveler Marco Polo to the elderly Tartar ruler Kublai Khan in the latter's garden. These are tales of twilight three times over: evening stories, told to an emperor in his declining years, and uncertain that his empire will outlast him.

Critics, commentators and ordinary readers find the book is extremely difficult to summarize or characterize briefly, a finding summarized on the back cover of the Harvest Books paperback edition in a quote attributed to Gore Vidal:

Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.

Something of the setting and tone of the tales is indicated by this passage, in the author's voice, between the first and second group of Polo's tales:

"(T)he emperor is he who is foreign to his subjects, and only through foreign eyes and ears could the empire manifest its existence to Kublai. In languages incomprehensible to the Khan, the envoys related information heard in languages incomprehensible to them: from this dense, opaque stridor emerged the revenues received by the imperial treasury, the first and last names of officials dismissed and decapitated, the dimensions of the narrow canals that the narrow rivers fed in times of drought. But when the young Venetian made his report, a different communication was established between him and the emperor. Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings and hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsack - ostrich plumes, peashooters, quartzes which he arranged in front of him like chessmen." (p. 21)

In all, Marco Polo tells Khan brief tales of 55 cities, most of which are 1-3 pages in length. The themes of memory, desire and signs run throughout the eight parts of the book, with additional themes, including trade, visibility, death and continuity becoming increasingly prominent in the later tales. In eight interludes between sets of tales of 5-10 cities, and written in the author's voice we learn a great deal of the evolving relation between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn. For example, between settings three and four we learn that the Khan himself has dreamt of a city which he describes to Polo.

Language, meaning and understanding are clearly important themes in Invisible Cities. The tales were first written in Italian. An additional dimension of language and interpretation is added for all non-Italian readers. For English language readers, the tales have been translated by William Weaver.