Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities: A Literary Masterpiece

Graphic by Arkayana Bora

Are you a travel enthusiast, an architecture-lover or someone who loves to explore unknown labyrinths of fiction in their free time? If you want to see spiral staircases adorned in spiral seashells, visit the city of Isidora. Or Anastasia, a place where “your desires waken all at once and encircle you,” famous for its golden pheasant roasted over fires of seasoned cherry wood and dusted with copious delicious marjoram. Looking for a location with even more adventure? Consider Octavia, which spans a chasm between two mountain tops using ropes, chains, and catwalks.

“Invisible Cities” (1972) is a reflection on human frailties and problems told through the lens of Marco Polo’s elusive description of a number of fanciful cities to Kublai Khan. in a modern-classical manner. The book oscillates between mythic and repetitive; at moments, forcing the reader to question the point of envisioning these fantastical locations, and at other times, enthralled by the author’s deft imagination.

In the Paris Review, Calvino said, “I believe Invisible Cities is a book whose place is between Poetry and Novel.” To a certain extent I agree with the author, because after multiple readings still, I cannot, for sure, place the novel under one definite genre, as it constantly dwindles between magic realism and historical fiction.

The aspect to be liked the most is that while reading Marco Polo’s description of the cities, you will find a similarity between how the traveller remembers the cities and how we as an individual remember the cities/ places that we have visited in the past. It is almost a vivid, dream-like account of memories and ideas, pilled together to give us a feel of the whole sensorial experience, tapping onto the pulse of the place.

“Cities very much like dreams, are made up of desires and fears.”

Invisible Cities can be seen as the story of the struggle of human civilization, told through the description of humanity’s functional utilitarian creations, and their idiosyncratic nuances of them. Each city has its own unique culture and name and arising from that, its own specific struggle, bending the city’s structure accordingly.

Calvino is not at all using the word “cities” in the manner that we typically do. All cities, even those in Calvino, are built with ideas rather than with concrete and steel. Every city is an experiment in mind. Every city, therefore, is an exception to the ‘normal’ to which we are accustomed.

The book essentially distinguishes the places into 11 distinct categories namely, City and Eyes, City and Memory, City and Names, City and the Dead, City and Desire, City and Signs, City and the Sky, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Hidden Cities and Continous Cities.

It is an allegorical portrayal of several surrealist fictional cities. Some of the depictions are amazing; Calvino’s mastery enables him to manifest bizarre cities that bear no resemblance to the cities we are accustomed to seeing day in and day out, yet they seem to us almost natural, and absolutely possible.

The text may seem light and loose to the superficial reader despite being filled with profound ideas by the master of the art:

“If you want to run off the ‘everyday’ inferno, there are not much but only two ways to go about it. The first is easy for many: accept it and be one with it. The second is to look for and discover those things and people who, despite the inferno, are not inferno, and to force them to endure.”

Frankly, I cannot fathom a linear way to discuss the allusive nature of this canonical masterpiece simply because reviewing in itself is an objective process and if you are familiar with any of Calvino’s texts, you pretty much know that they are anything but objective. One thing that I guess we all can agree upon is that Italo Calvino knows his way around words. Be it Cosmocomics, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller or Invisible Cities the imagery, world-building and well-knit storytelling make Calvino’s writings not just stand apart in the neo-realism genre, but also revolutionary in the sense that his writing makes the reader question, and to a certain extent, long for the world that he has so intricately illustrated.

If you are looking for fiction that will simply blow your mind and make you wonder about the world as it is; without a doubt pick up this masterpiece by Italo Calvino and be assured that you are in for an experience of a lifetime.

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