Invisible Cities Essay

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: Marco Polo

Within Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo recalls from memory cities he has visited and explored. While reciting his accounts to Kublai Khan, the reader views each city as an entity of its own. Small anecdotes from Kublai Khan insist that he views the individual experiences as small fragments of one, singular city. Kublai Khan’s reinterpretation of Marco Polo’s experiences change the meaning behind Marco Polo’s experiences whether they be from multiple cities or an implicit city divided up into many moments. The reader’s perspective on Marco Polo’s stories changes with a second look by Kublai Khan, a revised point of view.
The individual experiences of Marco Polo are laid out into separate cities with a unique element. His accounts describe cities with arches or canals, like spider webs or filled with skyscrapers, all very different yet still two may be connected in a way. Each individual recitation of a city is important to the moment in which Marco experienced it. The “city displays one face to the traveler arriving overland and a different one to him who arrives by sea,” each varying greatly in the approach of the explorer (Calvino 17). With different first glances at a city, the experience one has with a city is very distinctive. First experiences set a tone for city, and the moments an explorer would share on land or at sea would be polar opposites. The moment where Marco Polo first experienced a city dictated the tone of the new place. The experience the reader has of Marco Polo’s accounts are dependent upon the diction and style he tells of his journeys. A relationship with a moment is a direct reaction of past memories.
Marco Polo’s view of the world is based upon what he compares each moment to when exploring a new city. His “implicit” city, the place he “distinguishes the other cities’ qualities” acts as his point of comparison to all new experiences (Calvino 86). With a singular reference point, Marco Polo subconsciously associates similar experiences with this implicit city that stands above the rest. His implicit city is his home, Venice, Italy, and with his journeys he relates each comparison back to his home. Marco’s love for Venice places the city upon a pedestal, in which each new city’s relationship is a comparison between the two. The memories Marco Polo has of his implicit city structure the relationship he has with a new experience, “between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory” (Calvino 16). Marco’s perception of a new city is built upon the memories and moments he has gained in Venice.
Connections with the past build the foundation of Marco Polo’s relationship to new cities. His vision of the world is a momentary response to his single experience. The comparing and contrasting or memories with experiences helps Kublai Khan formulate his...

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I couldn’t stop thinking about the imposter city, and the next day I dropped by my neighborhood bookstore for a copy of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The novel had been on my radar for six years since I learned it was one of Jonathan Lethem’s favorites.

The day I started reading it, I was sitting in a bathtub watching the pages curl. I travelled through Calvino’s 11 different kinds of places: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities & Eyes, Cities & Names, Cities & the Dead, Cities & the Sky, Continuous Cities, Hidden Cities. I reached the city of Valdrada and became entranced by its symmetry to my dream:

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, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror. … The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a fictionalized conversation between the aging emperor Kublai Khan and a young Marco Polo. Although the book travels from city to city, their conversation is set in one place: a garden. The two ostensibly speak different languages, so much of what is understood between the emperor and the traveler is apparently shaped by large gestures.

“It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear,” Polo tells Khan, revealing that he is fluent in the emperor’s language. After describing a labyrinth of different cities, after trying to place where they might fall on an atlas, it’s clear that each city is the same city from different angles. Some readers like to say that it’s Marco Polo’s Venice; another way of seeing it is that every city is alike in its own way.

There are many facades to Calvino’s cities. There is Despina, which looks distinct depending on whether you approach it by land or by sea. There is Andria, which reflects itself in the constellations, and Olina, which can only be seen with a magnifying glass. Calvino’s cities are magical, dreamlike. Sophronia paints itself in two faces, one of which is always changing:

One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

The eerie aspect of each of Calvino’s impossible cities is their parallel with reality. Across the street from my apartment is a large factory that’s been turned into a luxury condo. Down the street, along the Gowanus Canal, is a row of factories that’ve recently been knocked down, places that had been abandoned for years, places that will soon change completely.

Sometimes I worry that New York changes too quickly. I find myself clinging to things, silly things I wouldn’t have imagined, like the Kentile Floors sign or Joe’s Superette. “Brooklyn as brand has overtaken Brooklyn as place,” I remember reading in the New York Observer months ago. So many people move to New York looking for a different version of the city where I grew up. Sometimes, after living for so long in the same neighborhood, it’s easy to be envious of that, to want to move somewhere without nostalgia, to move somewhere that feels totally new.

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