Column | Looking back at ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino in the author’s birth centenary year

The book, first published in Italian in 1972, is an ode to Venice, written in 55 ways, all named after women

Updated - November 08, 2023 12:00 pm IST

Published - October 27, 2023 10:45 am IST

Author Italo Calvino in Rome, December 1984.

Author Italo Calvino in Rome, December 1984. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“I’ve switched to stories,” Italo Calvino wrote to a friend in 1945. The Italian fabulist’s first vocation, and the one that he spent the most time on, was theatre, wrote his wife Esther in the Preface to his collection of short stories, Numbers in the Dark (1995), translated into English by Tim Parks. Once he turned to stories, “he wrote every day, wherever he was and in whatever circumstances, at a table or on his knee, in planes or hotel rooms”, leaving behind a treasure trove of work.

As he had been writing from his teens, there are many stories, including some really little stories which he called raccontini, and fables, poetry, plays to choose from. In Calvino’s birth centenary year, we dip into Invisible Cities, an ode to one city — Venice — written in 55 ways, all named after women. It was first published in Italian in 1972, and translated into English in 1974 by William Weaver.

In it, an ageing Kublai Khan is being told stories by a young Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, of the cities he has visited on his expeditions. Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco says, but he listens to him as he has reached that desperate moment when he knows that his empire is in “formless ruin”. Marco agrees the empire is sick, and so the aim of his explorations is to examine the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed: “If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.”

Ode to cities

Invisible Cities does not deal with recognisable cities, according to Calvino, and they are all inventions. And yet, each of the book’s short chapters “is a reflection which holds good for all cities or for the city in general”.

Who hasn’t encountered a city like Zora, for instance, which has the quality of remaining in memory, but in order to be more easily remembered has remained motionless and always the same, and languished, disintegrated and disappeared?

There’s another called Euphemia, which is a “trading city” where not just goods are bought and sold, but also stories. “ each word that one man says, such as ‘wolf’, ‘sister’, ‘hidden treasure’, ‘battle’, ‘lovers’ — the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures, battles, lovers.” These stories will be kept in memory to be summoned when necessary and Euphemia will be remembered for the city where memory is traded.

Thin cities, trading cities, hidden cities, continuous cities, cities of signs, of memory, of desire — Calvino has imagined spaces of all kinds. When the great Khan dreams of a city, with a harbour, docks over the black water, which slams against the retaining walls; boats smeared with tar, and ships sailing away, he asks Marco to “set out, explore every coast, and seek this city” of his dreams. Marco tells him quietly: “The city exists and it has a simple secret: it knows only departures, not returns.”

A still from the Netflix series ‘Marco Polo’.

A still from the Netflix series ‘Marco Polo’.

One day Khan pins Marco down when he tells him he has told him everything about the cities he knows. “There is still one of which you never speak,” says Khan. Marco smiles and says, “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about? Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

Living in inferno

Calvino, in his own words, wrote Invisible Cities in phases, over several years, adding a piece every now and then — at one stage, he could only write about sad cities, and at another, about happy ones.

The last conversation between Khan and Marco is about the city of the future which turns out to be an infernal city. Marco suggests two ways to escape suffering it: “The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second demands constant vigilance: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” Isn’t the world living in such a city now?

Khan’s query — is there a way out of this “unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume?” — speaks to the dark times of the present, like many of Calvino’s other stories.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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