book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino and William Weaver (tr.)

Calvino, Italo; William Weaver (tr.);

Invisible Cities [Le città invisibili, 1972]

Harcourt Brace 1974/1978, 165 pages

ISBN 0156453800

topics: |  fiction | poetry | italian | semantics

Lyrical prose poems, each covering the unique soul of different cities in
Kublai Khan's empire as Marco Polo describes them to him.  Possibly some of
the greatest leaps of imagnation in modern poetry.


	In the lives of emperors there is a moment
	which follows pride in the
	boundless extension of territories we have conquered,
	and the melancholy and relief of knowing
	we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
	There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening,
	with the odor of the elephants after the rain
	and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers,
	a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on
			the fallow curves
	of the planispheres where they are portrayed,
	and rolls up, one after the other,
	the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops,
	from defeat to defeat,
	and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings
	who beseech our armies' protection, offering in
	exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and
	tortoise shell.
	It is the desperate moment when we discover that this
	empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders,
	is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene
			has spread too far
	to be healed by our scepter,
	that the triumph over enemy sovereigns
	has made us the heirs of their long undoing.
		 - p.5, describing Kublai Khan's empire

the lighted ground-floor windows, each with a woman combing her
hair. - p.17

Language: Sign and meaning

Newly arrived and ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo
could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and
of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from
his knapsacks - ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes - which he
arranged in front of him like chessmen. ... one city was depicted by
the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant's beak to fall into a net;
another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third
by a skull, its tree green with mold, clutching a round, white, pearl.
... But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed
had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or
confused. ...

[eventually Marco Polo masters the language]
	"On the day when I know all the emblems," [Kublai] asked Marco,
   shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?"
	And the Venetian answered: "Sire, do not believe it. On that
   day you will be an emblem among emblems."
		- p.21-23


2 (Journeys and words)

	"The other ambassadors warn me of famines, extortions, conspiracies,
	or else they inform me of newly discovered turquoise mines,
	advantageous prices in marten furs, suggestions for supplying
	damascened blades. And you?" the Great Khan asked Polo, "you return
	from lands equally distant and you can tell me only the thoughts that
	come to a man who sits on his doorstep at evening to enjoy the cool
	air. What is the use, then, of all your traveling?"

	"It is evening. We are seated on the steps of your palace, There is a
	slight breeze," Marco Polo answered. "Whatever country my words may
	evoke around you, you will see it from such a vantage point, even if
	instead of the palace there is a village on pilings and the breeze
	carries with it the stench of a muddy estuary." (p.28)

You cross archipelagos, tundras, mountain ranges. You would do as well
never moving from here. (p.28)

At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or
Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question...
	- p. 27-29, much on imagination.

'Journeys to relive your past?' was the Khan's question at this point, a
question which could also have been formulated: 'Journeys to recover your

And Marco's answer was: 'Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller
recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and
will never have. 29

Cities and desire 4

	In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal
	building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe,
	you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the
	forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had
	not become what we see today.

	In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of
	making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature
	model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had
	been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass
	globe. (p.32)

When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the
pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the
white and red windsocks flapping, the chimney belching smoke, he
thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a
vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to
cast off, with the breeze already swelling the sails, not yet
unfurled... (p. 17)

Cities and Eyes 1

	The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake, with houses all
	verandas one above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets
	look out over the water. Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two
	cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside
	down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other
	Valdrada does not repeat.  p.53

... Olivia, a city rich in products and in profits. I can indicate its
prosperity only by speaking of filigree palaces with fringed cushions
on the seats by the mullioned windows.  Beyond the screen of a patio,
spinning jets water a lawn where a white peacock spreads its tail. But
from these words you realize at once how Olivia is shrouded in a cloud
of soot and grease that sticks to the houses, that in the brawling
streets, the shifting trailers crush pedestrians against the walls.


On the day when Eutropia's inhabitants feel the grip of weariness and
no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his house and his
life debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the whole
citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for
them, empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a
different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and
will spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip. (p.64)

[Kublai khan's dream:]
	I saw from a distance the spires of a city rise, slender pinnacles,
	made in such a way that the moon in her journey can rest now on one,
	now on another, or sway from the cables of the cranes.

	And Polo says:  The city of your dream is Lalage. (p.74)


The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the
people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of
soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator
still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the
most up-to- date radio. ... Street cleaners are welcomed like angels,
and their task of removing the residue of yesterday;s existence is
surrounded by a respectful silence, like the ritual that inspires
devotion, perhaps only because once things have been cast off nobody
wants to have to think about them any further.

Nobody wonders where, each day, they carry their load of refuse. ...
The more Leonia expels its goods, the more it accumulates them. The
scales of its past are soldered into a cuirass that cannot be removed.

Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it
changes. (p.125)


In the city of Cecilia, an illustrious city, I met once a goatherd,
driving a tinkling flock along the walls.

"Man blessed by heaven," he asked me, stopping, "can you tell me the
name of the city in which we are?"

"May the gods accompany you!" I cried. "How can you fail to recognize
the illustrious city of Cecilia?"

"Bear with me." that man answered. "I am a wandering herdsman.
Sometimes my goats and I have to pass through cities but we are unable
to distinguish them. Ask me the names of the grazing lands: I know
them all, the Meadow between the Cliffs, the Green slope, the Shadowed
Grass.  Cities have no name for me; they are places without leaves,
separating one pasture from another, and where the goats are
frightened at street corners and scatter."

Time and space

[later on, Marco Polo encounters the same goatherd, lost in Cecilia]

   "The places must have mingled," the goatherd said. "Cecilia is
   everywhere. Here, once upon a time, there must have been the Meadow of
   the Low Sage. My goats recognize the grass on the traffic island."

blurb: In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo--Tartar emperor and Venetian traveler. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo diverts the emperor with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. Soon it becomes clear that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2013 May 17