The book slides off the shelf, self-effacing, second hand. It’s bought and opened on the underground, and in the cliché so often employed to describe the magic of great fiction, it transported me to another world, or, in the case of Invisible Cities, infinite possible worlds.
Only few words in and the spell is immediate, the intoxication complete. Marco Polo sits in humble audience before the great Kublai Khan, regaling him with tales of the many and marvellous cities he has encountered on his travels.
An encyclopaedic vocabulary pours forth, culinary, botanical, geographic, architectural. Life’s beauties and pleasures are spilled onto the page. The splendour of garden and pagoda, the mystifying complexity of a vast, imperial diversity.
The language becomes richer as the Venetian merchant recounts what he has seen.
There are cities of spires, of canals, of palaces and thousand variations of medieval and baroque tropes and wonders. Cities of great traders, craftsmen, lovers; those towering into the air, others advancing downward – some suspended over ravines, their residents keenly aware of the finitude of their endurance.
The physical character of a city can be manifest in a seemingly endless array of combinations, one goes up, the other down. Like a Heraclitean continuum, any number of opposites can necessitate their counterpart elsewhere, in another bewildering instantiation – another city.
Kublai listens to the recollections of his guest with patience, wonder, and scepticism.
There are cities, each with a woman’s name, that Marco is sure he has visited before, others which don’t stay in the memory, but then again, every city reminds him of that unremembered place because, at bottom, aren’t all cities like that very one?
Soon it becomes clear that all cities resemble a single locale in a certain sense, and as the Khan deduces, it is the traveller’s native Venice. Marco has ‘smuggled’ his nostalgia into the imperial presence, and made endless variations on the theme of that Adriatic jewel – or is Venice itself split into endless variations waiting to be encountered?
Here enters another parade of infinite possibilities, not only physical variations, but all that people bring to our encounters with each of them. Our nostalgia, our regret, our fondness. One memory can change the face of the city which meets us when we return, or a conception alter the greeting we receive in a foreign metropolis.
Content that emperor and merchant are engaged in a game of infinite complexity, they continue – Marco recounts places he may or may not have visited, which may or may not exist, other than on the shelf of places yet to come into being. So the pair speculate, create possibilities which may already, or ultimately will, be contained in the Kahn’s realm, that is, the world.
In gestures the Venetian communicates, and with a pantomime of collected objects. This is enough to extrapolate meanings. A chess piece, a knight, can become a horseman, stables, anything. Mastering the tongue of the Tartar potentate, the descriptions have new loquacious horizons open to them, a multitude of new signs to attach to a multitude of things.
What begins with the joy of fantastical cities turns to the melancholy outcomes offered when faced with an endless choice. The intricately cascading chapters move in the realms of the hidden, and of death. Cities which reflect the buried, living acting out the roles of their dead. Forms are ones of impermanence, desolation.
The trader and warlord sit in the garden as in an opium dream, they begin to wonder if they are really at sea or in battle, and their real minds have wandered to this peaceful place. They ponder whether they really exist anywhere at all. Identities blur and waver, and as with cities, they can crumble.
Calvino gives us hints of the fresh signs, the new vocabulary of our modern world. The city which is nowhere, but at every airport when we disembark, as all places have become the one, inescapable location. The city without centre, whose suburbs stretch from your entry to your exit, without the traveller ever finding the place itself.
Here as the book descends in tone, while it laments with subtlety the uniformity of globalisation, we begin to learn its lesson.
It is the one all great literature can impart. That, with so many worlds contained within 150 pages, the one we inhabit when we cease to read need not be as it is.
The whitewashed world is as contingent as any of the imaginings of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Whereas in the somewhat similar work of Borges, those dealing with the countless and eternal are often tragically trapped by their place within the sequence, there is a joy in Calvino’s exploration of endless variation – a lived, human dimension to each new form.
We are free to write a book, build a city or live a life plucked from a parade of infinite possibilities.