Friday, June 28, 2013

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
Read: 15 June to 21 June 2013
5 / 5 stars

Italo Calvino is a veritable drug. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, and don't trust them if they do.

Ever since the rapturous reading experience that is If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, I have been hooked on the man's words. As it is with most blossoming relationships, I'm a little wary of coming on too strong or getting too close too quickly and chipping away at the charming veneer of novelty in the throes of my overeager enthusiasm before we've gotten comfortable with each other, but this is the third book of his I've read in a year (exactly a year, actually) and I am just as giddily smitten with Invisible Cities as I was with my aforementioned introduction to Calvino's works and also Cosmicomics.

Invisible Cities clocks in at a seemingly stingy 165 pages, with many pages only half-filled and a number of them left conspicuously blank. But since this is a Calvino novel, his beautiful, beautiful words are only a fraction of the payoff: The ideas, the images, the quiet messages, the prophetic warnings disguised as storytelling, the dreamlike quality licking at the edges of every sentence and even the apparent silences of seemingly unused spaces carry more weight than they would if they were crafted by any other writer's hand. And there is not a sentence that does no warrant savoring with a second or third read in this entire book.

This novel is what happens when two historical figures -- in this case, an elderly but spirited Kublai Khan and the younger traveler Marco Polo -- whose lone commonality is being alive at the same time try to communicate without sharing a language. Polo conveys the cities (or is it just one city's many faces?) he has seen to the emperor through gestures, objects and other nonverbal cues. Like Cosmicomics, it is a map comprising the essences of things; like If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, the reader becomes part of the narrative as he is welcome to draw his own conclusions just as much as Khan is.

I think I've made it pretty clear in previous reviews that I love duality and the play between opposing forces in my reading materials of choice, probably to the point that I find them in places they don't really live. Invisible Cities has 'em by the fistfuls, though. The palpably dynamic tension between the visible and in-, happiness and misery, the imagined and the real, the living and the dead, the storyteller and his audience, the roaring inferno and the heavenly plains, the finite work of creation and infinite motion of ruin, the image and its mirrored reflection was a delight unto itself, but the additional step of blurring the lines between each extreme with every achingly gorgeous stop on the raconteur's journey through recollection and the listener's odyssey of imagination was exactly the kind of extra mile I expect Calvino to traverse with gusto.

There is an inversion of expectations that gives each push-and-pull pairing of opposites some of the hazy magic that is so particular to Calvino's works. It's not entirely surprising to read about cities where the living envy the cities of their dead to the point of emulation and confusion as to which populous is really alive, or whose people are more at peace with the certainty of obliteration than their earthbound counterparts because their metropolis is built upon a spider-web network of ropes and they are all too aware that their precarious balance could fail at any moment (is there anyone more alive than those who are reminded of death on a daily basis?). But there is a pleasant surprise when the design of a carpet and the layout of a city are echoes of each other; oracles who are consulted about the mystical connection between two unlikely entities only offer the ambiguous insight that "[o]ne of the two objects…. has the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds revolve; the other is an approximate reflection, like every human creation."

While there are common threads and themes woven throughout Polo's narratives, no two cities (or no two faces of the city) are examined in the same way. The cities' signs, desires, dead, names, skies and other shared traits may be explored but never to the same effect. And sometimes seemingly unrelated characteristics make similar points: A city would have no history without its dead, just as its living have no motivation for progress without acknowledging the mistakes upon which a history was built, just as the dead have a peace that the living won't know without forging ahead in life.

There is a sense of concentricity that unites each urban observation, which, along with the interspersed exchanges between emperor and explorer, help move the novel toward its oft-hinted-at augury of urgency that reaches its climax as the stories reach their conclusion, as relevant as it was centuries ago when Marco Polo and Kublai Khan were supposedly having their animated discourse in a garden, as when Invisible Cities was published four decades ago, as when I finished it this morning:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, and make them endure, give them space.

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