Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ubiquitous Cities

I read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino a little while ago because I heard a few of my friends discussing it. Here are my thoughts.

The book is a fictional account of the travels of Marco Polo, as related by the traveller himself to Kublai Khan. His descriptions of various cities are interspersed with a dialogue with the Khan, in which it gradually becomes clear to the reader that all the cities described are really facets of a single city, Venice. I feel no compunction in spoiling this for you, because Vintage Classics, in their infinite wisdom, spoilt it for me by putting that morsel of information on the back cover.

Invisible Cities almost seems like a rough draft or a scrapbook full of ideas. Each city is unique, whether this is because of its unlikely location, bizarre architecture, or the characters and actions of its inhabitants. In one city, the citizens trail threads between themselves and all of their acquaintances, with different colours of thread symbolising different relationships; familial ties, business dealings, romantic entanglements. Finally, when there are so many threads that normal life becomes impossible, the inhabitants will abandon the city and move somewhere else, leaving their deserted, spider-webbed homes to be gradually destroyed by the elements. In another city, the residents build an exact replica of their metropolis underground in order to house the dead and make the transition from life to death less jarring. Or was it the dead who built the upper city?

Each city is a puzzling vignette, a glimpse of a different society and an entirely different way of going about one’s life. Many of them are very beautiful and thought provoking.

For me, it is precisely this that makes Invisible Cities so unsatisfying. Calvino dangles an idea in front of your eyes, and then whisks it away. Each city is given just a page or so. I’m sure the idea is to tantalise, but I found that the arrangement of the novel into single-page chapters was clunky and awkward, and many of the cities read like frustratingly abortive potential places. Somehow, they do not quite exist. Many of them cry out to be entire novels, beautiful and paradoxical ideas for societies that could be almost infinitely expanded. Why not do what Borges does, and take a philosophical trinket and stretch it to its logical conclusion? There are so many worlds that could be spun out from this book, but perhaps the elegance of these cities and ideas would be lost if they were used in this way. Their brevity and ambiguity certainly grants them a spell-like fascination.

My view of Invisible Cities is partly coloured by The Book of Dave, which I’ve nearly finished reading. Will Self calls London ‘the once and future city,’ and toys with the same kind of timelessness which Calvino does. London and Venice are both magical in the way they stretch away before and behind us, but I personally find the depth and saturation of Self’s 500-page vision of a city more enchanting than Calvino’s brief work.

This may be a little unfair though, since I’ve never been to Venice.

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