Exploring Calvino’s Invisible Cities

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I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities earlier this year, a book composed of imaginative cities of all shapes and sizes. A book which seems to have no real plot, the descriptions of these cities are framed as part of Marco Polo’s telling of his travels to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Invisible Cities also works as an exploration of the act of narration itself, the construction of stories, and the overlapping of the fictional and the historical, allowing Calvino to make playful allusions and commentaries on present-day urban realities obliquely through the features of the imaginary cities. There are 55 cities all in all categorized under the following headings: Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities, and Hidden Cities. A treat to read, of course! Here are some of my favorite cities:

Anastasia, second of the Cities and Desire series, features concentric canals and kites over its skyline. It is described as a treacherous city:

The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content… if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.

Tamara, first of the Cities and Signs series, is a play on post-structuralist dogma.

If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occipies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the place, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel… Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.

However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it.

Maurilia, fifth of the Cities and Memory series, is another playful rendition of the severance of the sign from its referent.

…the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old post cards that show it as it used to be… If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the post card city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared to the the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old post cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one’s eyes, one saw absolutely nothinh graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, though what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was.

It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Marurilia, like this one.

Zobeide, fifth of the Cities and Desire series, was built by its founders on the basis of a dream about a naked woman running in an unknown city.

After the dream they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.

Valdrada, the first of the Cities and Eyes series, seems to be a play on another post-structuralist trope, the mirror-phase.

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…

Valdrada’s inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that action and its mirror-image, which possesses the special dignity of images, and this awareness prevents them from succumbing for a single moment to chance and forgetfulness.

The twin cities are not equal, because nothing that exists or happens in Valdrada is symmetrical: every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and gesture inverted, point by point. The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.

Eutropia, third of the Trading Cities series, are many cities of equal size and same appearance scattered over a plateau.

Eutropia is not one, but all these cities together; only one is inhabited at a time, the others are empty; and this process is carried out in rotation… 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. So their life is renewed from move to move, among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams or winds make each site somehow different from the others.

Eusapia, third of the Cities and the Dead series, features an identical copy of the city, underground, to make the transition from life to death smoother.

All corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue their former activities… To be sure, many of the living want a fate after death different from their lot in life: the necropolis is crowded with big-game hunters, mezzosopranos, bankers, violinists, duchesses, courtesans, generals – more than the living city ever contained.

From one year to the next, they say, the Eusapia of the dead becomes unrecognizable. And the living, to keep up with them, also want to do everything that the hooded brothers tell them about the novelties of the dead. So the Eusapia of the living has taken to copying its underground copy.

They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.

Leonia, first of the Continuous Cities series, which refashions itself every day with people waking up every morning between fresh sheets, brand-new clothing, unopened goods from the latest model refrigerator, and the breaking news from the most up-to-date radio.

It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of new and different things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity… A fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountain.

Trude, second of the Continuous Cities series, is literally a continuous city: “If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off.”

“You can resume your flight whenever you like,” they said to me, “but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.”

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One thought on “Exploring Calvino’s Invisible Cities

  1. Pingback: Mr. Palomar and Marcovaldo | Hello.Lenin!

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