Friday, 16 July 2010

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Part of my brain is convinced that I’ve read more Italo Calvino than I actually have. In reality, until now, I’ve nipped through only Our Ancestors and The Path to Spiders’ Nests. This, whether measured in pages or as a proportion of Calvino’s bibliography, is naff all. But somehow, perhaps because of his tremendous reputation, perhaps because of how much I adored Our Ancestors (didn’t think so much of The Path to Spiders’ Nests – I’m only occasionally drawn in by war books), I feel like I’m a fan, a serious reader, someonw who knows what’s going down with this Calvino chap.

This is, of course, nonsense. He’s written masses of stuff, packed wth cleverness, and I’ve had a quick, unanalytical read of a couple of minor works. So to try to do something about this, I decided to check out Invisible Cities. It’s supermodel-skinny by novel standards (it’s been sat next to Cryptonomicon on my bookshelf, which is a bit like parking a mini next to a tank), but it’s one of those books that crops up all over the place.

As it turns out, there’s a reason for this.

Invisible Cities is a collection of 50-odd brief, bizarre, beautiful descriptions of invented cities. This doesn’t make it into some sort of fantasy guidebook, a Rough Guide to Nowhere, but rather an anthology of metaphor, a collection of insights into the ways human society sticks together. The cities are described as if from fables or fairy tales, each impossible and yet meaningful in its own particular way, and labelled by the ideas they discuss: ‘Cities and desire’, ‘Cities and death’, ‘Cities and eyes’.

The vignettes are tied together by a framing narrative in which Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of his travels. These scenes are used to discuss how stories work – how they can be told, and how we can take meaning from them – as Polo and the Khan slowly overcome barriers of language and eventually reality, comparing their existence to the cities Polo imagines or recounts.

The progress of these conversations into metaphysics is matched by the way the cities are arranged. Generally, the earlier cities are more straightforward, and the later more bizarre. So if you pick up something from the start, such as Tamara, part one of ‘Cities and signs’, you find a vaguely possible city with a quirk:

‘... streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.’

The elaborate description of the city’s obsession with signs leads to a comment on pathetic fallacy:

‘... you leave Tamara without having discovered it... In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognising figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant.’

The same structure – description followed by moral – is followed throughout, as the cities become increasingly outlandish. Take, for instance, Argia (cities and the dead part four):

‘... it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling, on every stairs another stairway is set in the negative, over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds.’

Here you are far from a mythic travelogue and deep into wonderful twisted corridors of the imagination. The pretence of Polo actually having visited or lived in these places is abandoned. Basically, don’t expect a narrative, or a plot, or any old-school stuff like that. The framing sections turn Invisible Cities into a clever exploration of ways of telling stories and ways of reading (or listening to) them.

However, I found the individual cities much more enjoyable than the theory lessons between Polo and the Khan. The metropoli are described magnificently, and each is given just enough detail to make it fascinating and enticing, but not so much as to destroy the sense of wonder through over-explanation. There is strangeness and extravagance, mystery and emotion, packed into tiny little scraps of prose, any of which feel as if they could play host to a hundred different stories, but which Calvino casts carelessly to the reader as if his head were brimming with the things. It’s enormous fun just to flick the book open and random and read about whre you’ve ended up. I just tried it and wound up in Octavia, ‘the spider-web city’:

‘There is a precipice between two step mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.’

Each city begins with an idea, offers you a description, then leaves you with a message. In other words, each of these 55 tiny scenes is a miniature novel, only one without characters or plot: stories with nothing but setting. It’s a wonderful thing to have sitting nearby, ready to be dipped into whenever you want an image or an idea to run through your head. Looking at it like this, Invisible Cities isn’t really a novel at all, but a reference book for marvels.  

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