All About Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities"

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Published in Italian in 1972, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities consists of a sequence of imaginary dialogues between the Venetian traveler Marco Polo and the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan. In the course of these discussions, the young Polo describes a series of metropolises, each of which bears a woman's name, and each of which is radically different from all the others. The descriptions of these cities are arranged in eleven groups in Calvino's text: 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.

Although Calvino uses historical personages for his main characters, this dreamlike novel does not really belong to the historical fiction genre. And even though some of the cities that Polo evokes for the aging Kublai are futuristic communities or physical impossibilities, it is equally difficult to argue that Invisible Cities is a typical work of fantasy, science fiction, or even magical realism. Calvino scholar Peter Washington maintains that Invisible Cities is "impossible to classify in formal terms." But the novel can be loosely described as an exploration—, sometimes playful, sometimes melancholy—, of the powers of the imagination, of the fate of human culture, and of the elusive nature of storytelling itself. As Kublai speculates, "perhaps this dialogue of ours is taking place between two beggars named Kublai Khan and Marco Polo; as they sift through a rubbish heap, piling up rusted flotsam, scraps of cloth, wastepaper, while drunk on the few sips of bad wine, they see all the treasure of the East shine around them" (104).

Italo Calvino’s Life and Work

Italo Calvino (Italian, 1923-1985) began his career as a writer of realistic stories, then developed an elaborate and intentionally disorienting manner of writing that borrows from canonical Western literature, from folklore, and from popular modern forms such as mystery novels and comic strips. His taste for confusing variety is very much in evidence in Invisible Cities, where 13th-century explorer Marco Polo describes skyscrapers, airports, and other technological developments from the modern era. But it is also possible that Calvino is mixing historical details in order to comment indirectly on 20th-century social and economic issues. Polo at one point recalls a city where household goods are replaced on a daily basis by newer models, where street cleaners “are welcomed like angels,” and where mountains of garbage can be seen on the horizon (114-116). Elsewhere, Polo tells Kublai of a city that was once peaceful, spacious, and rustic, only to become nightmarishly over-populated in a matter of years (146-147).

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

In real life, Marco Polo (1254-1324) was an Italian explorer who spent 17 years in China and established friendly relations with Kublai Khan’s court. Polo documented his travels in his book Il milione (literally translated The Million, but usually referred to as The Travels of Marco Polo), and his accounts became immensely popular in Renaissance Italy. Kublai Khan (1215-1294) was a Mongolian general who brought China under his rule, and also controlled regions of Russia and the Middle East. Readers of English may also be familiar with the much-anthologized poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Like Invisible Cities, Coleridge’s piece has little to say about Kublai as a historical personage and is more interested in presenting Kublai as a character who represents immense influence, immense wealth, and underlying vulnerability.

Self-Reflexive Fiction 

Invisible Cities is not the only narrative from the middle of the 20th century that serves as an investigation of storytelling. Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) created short fictions that feature imaginary books, imaginary libraries, and imaginary literary critics. Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) composed a series of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) about characters who agonize over the best ways to write their life stories. And John Barth (1930-present) combined parodies of standard writing techniques with reflections on artistic inspiration in his career-defining short story “Lost in the Funhouse”. Invisible Cities does not refer directly to these works the way it refers directly to Thomas More’s Utopia or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But it can stop seeming totally offbeat or totally baffling when considered in this wider, international context of self-conscious writing.

Form and Organization 

Although each of the cities that Marco Polo describes appears to be distinct from all the others, Polo makes a surprising declaration halfway through Invisible Cities (page 86 out of 167 pages total). “Every time I describe a city,” remarks Polo to the inquisitive Kublai, “I am saying something about Venice.” The placement of this information indicates just how far Calvino is departing from standard methods of writing a novel. Many classics of Western literature—from Jane Austen’s novels to the short stories of James Joyce and William Faulkner, to works of detective fiction—build up to dramatic discoveries or confrontations that only take place in the final sections. Calvino, in contrast, has situated a stunning explanation in the dead center of his novel. He has not abandoned traditional tactics of conflict and surprise, but he has found non-traditional uses for them.

Moreover, while it is difficult to locate an overall pattern of escalating conflict, climax, and resolution in Invisible Cities, the book does have a clear organizational scheme. And here, too, there is a sense of a central dividing line. Polo’s accounts of different cities are arranged in nine separate sections in the following, roughly symmetrical fashion:

Section 1 (10 accounts)

Sections 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 (5 accounts)

Section 9 (10 accounts)

Often, a principle of symmetry or duplication is responsible for the layouts of the cities Polo tells Kublai about. At one point, Polo describes a city built over a reflecting lake, so that every action of the inhabitants “is, at once, that action and its mirror image” (53). Elsewhere, he talks about a city “built so artfully that its every street follows a planet’s orbit, and the buildings and the places of community life repeat the order of the constellations and the position of the most luminous stars” (150).

Forms of Communication

Calvino provides some very specific information about the strategies that Marco Polo and Kublai use to communicate with each other. Before he learned Kublai’s language, Marco Polo “could express himself only by drawing objects from his baggage—drums, salt fish, necklaces of wart hogs’ teeth—and pointing to them with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay of the jackal, the hoot of the owl” (38). Even after they have become fluent in one another’s languages, Marco and Kublai find communication based on gestures and objects immensely satisfying. Yet the two characters’ different backgrounds, different experiences, and different habits of interpreting the world naturally make perfect understanding impossible. According to Marco Polo, “it is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear” (135).

Culture, Civilization, History

Invisible Cities frequently calls attention to the destructive effects of time and the uncertainty of humanity’s future. Kublai has reached an age of thoughtfulness and disillusionment, which Calvino describes thus: “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” (5). Several of Polo’s cities are alienating, lonely places, and some of them feature catacombs, huge cemeteries, and other sites devoted to the dead. But Invisible Cities is not an entirely bleak work. As Polo remarks about one of the most miserable of his cities, “there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, the unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence” (149).

A Few Discussion Questions:

  1. How do Kublai Khan and Marco Polo differ from the characters you have encountered in other novels? What new information about their lives, their motives, and their desires Calvino have to provide if he were writing a more traditional narrative?
  2. What are some sections of the text that you can understand much better when you take into consideration the background material on Calvino, Marco Polo, and Kublai Khan? Is there anything that historical and artistic contexts cannot clarify?
  3. Despite Peter Washington’s assertion, can you think of a concise way of classifying the form or genre of Invisible Cities?
  4. What kind of a view of human nature do Invisible Cities seem to endorse? Optimistic? Pessimistic? Divided? Or totally unclear? You might want to return to some of the passages about the fate of civilization when thinking about this question.

Note on Citations: All page numbers refer to William Weaver's widely-available translation of Calvino's novel (Harcourt, Inc., 1974).