‘KUBLAI: We have proved that if
we were here, we would not be.
POLO: And here, in fact, we are.’
And thus is captured, the essence of ‘Invisible Cities’, by Italo Calvino.
As one leafs through the first few pages of this book, one finds the conventional notion of a ‘book’, shattered. Fiction within non-fiction; what was, shrouded by what cannot be, as you try to make the book speak to you in YOUR language, peeling off layer by layer, as though in pursuit of an unattainable goal.
As references to planes and airports; San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles crop up in this 13th Century setting based on the interactions between an emperor and his explorer, one really marvels at how the author has treated this same setting as a portal to times and places long gone, to times and places that may or may not come, and most prominently to times and places that CANNOT BE.
The whole narrative is a spin off from human nature, its complications and eccentricities, and how the same is expressed through the built environment.
For example, two parallel perceptions of the same city of Despina, which sits on a lip of desert jutting into the sea, include a sailor gazing onto the city, comparing it to a camel rising from the desert, and a camel rider gazing onto the city, comparing it to a ship looming on the horizon. It’s like looking at two sides of the same coin.
Then again there are cities which push the limits of human imagination and perception.
The city of Argia is made completely of void spaces and mud, the city of Octavia is hanging between two mountains and Ersilia is 'survived by' literal threads of human relationships.
There are certain points in the book where the author plays with the natural human train of thought, where his style of writing leads you on to believe that the city of Sophronia is made of two halves, one permanent and the other temporary. One is made of houses, offices, mills and courts; and the other comprises ferris wheels, carousels, rides and motorists. Yet you see, with every season, the houses, offices, mills and courts come down and move with the permanent city, the one of ferris wheels, carousels, rides and motorists.
The book moves through the darkest of human emotions, to the lightest of human aspirations, using as a medium the cities it explores, or rather Marco Polo explores, in the quest of human satisfaction in relation with space, which also, surprisingly, when I re-read this very sentence, comes across as a dubious claim.
Looking back at the narrative, I would say it was a fairly inconclusive account of human imagination interspersed with the imagined perceptions of two very important people from Medieval History.
Reading the book was like taking a holy dip in the river of imagination, wherein it flowed long before you came along and will certainly flow long after your time, and how your little immersion will not affect the river, but will definitely change you for life.
For me, the book did not finish with the last page, and even though I spent an exhaustive 40 hours reading it, I daresay, it had not even begun...