“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
Invisible Cities is a tour de force from Italo Calvino, the late Italian master of speculative fiction. This uniquely constructed novel is set in the late thirteenth century in the court of Kublai Khan. The Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, captivates the Tartar Emperor with descriptions of the cities from his unprecedented travels. By this time, the Mongol Empire has grown to be the largest that the world has ever seen. In the future, it will be eclipsed only by the British Empire in terms of the land area under its control.
The Empire has grown so large that the Great Khan feels like he doesn’t even know his own lands. He only learns about the far-flung cities in and beyond his Empire through the stories of travelers, and the well-traveled and poetically tongued Marco Polo is the greatest explorer and storyteller of them all.
Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of wondrous and beautiful cities, cities of passion and desire, cities of memory, cities of light and the sky, trading cities, cities of signs, hidden cities, cities of the dead. The Great Khan is captivated by Marco Polo’s poetic descriptions throughout Invisible Cities.
While Marco Polo introduces each city by a different name, it soon becomes apparent that the descriptions are actually different facets of a single city: his beloved hometown of Venice. In this sense, Invisible Cities becomes Italo Calvino’s love letter to Venice.
But the scope is much broader than we think. It’s true that each description is a different aspect of Venice. But in Invisible Cities, Marco Polo is really describing all cities the world has ever seen or ever will see. He is describing ancient cities like Babylon, future cities like Los Angeles, and even mythical cities like Atlantis or Utopia. He is describing the universe of all possible cities that could ever exist, now, in the past, in the future, or in some alternate reality.
It is hard for me to describe the beauty and nuance of Invisible Cities. Just as Marco Polo describes his hometown in this work, as a reader you will find him describing yours as well. Italo Calvino will lead you to discover new and beautiful facets of urbanity in your own surroundings.