(translated by William Weaver)
return from the city of Zirma with distinct memories: a blind black man
shouting in the crowd, a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper's cornice, a
girl walking with a puma on a leash.
Reviewed by Pauline Masurel
seems necessary to describe what this book is not as much as what it
is. So I should make it clear that if you like plot-driven, rattling
yarns then youíll probably be disappointed. If you enjoy being amazed
by extraordinary scenery and ideas fabricated with words then I think
youíre more likely to be enchanted by Invisible Cities.
We are given to
understand that these are tales of cities visited by Marco Polo, as
told to Kublai Khan. Or, towards the end of the book, cities imagined
by the latter and told to the former. But this is only occasionally
explicitly so; more often they are simply descriptions of places, with
no direct reference to narrator or audience. These cities are rarely
built of bland bricks and mortar. They are full of aluminium springs,
silver domes, crystal, bronze, seashells, high bastions, curved
arcades, nets, banisters, awnings, dirigibles, globes, pagodas,
gratings, garrets, pilings, verandahs, parapets and porphyry steps. The
cities are seldom peopled with characters, other than transitory ones,
although there are family monopolies in bergamot, sturgeon roe,
astrolabes and amethysts, turquoises, marten furs and damascened
I can only
wonder about the effects of translation upon Calvinoís original
language. In my view, William Weaverís translation produces extremely
lyrical prose, but I canít speak for how accurately it encapsulates the
original Italian, nor whether some of the extraordinary word
combinations, such as the "cornices of skyscrapers", are faithful or
The pieces are
divided into categories by their titles, although themes often overlap
between them. The Cities
& Memory stories are philosophical thought
experiments about nostalgia, history, aging and decline. But if that
sounds rather airy, they do have intimations of narratives --
walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so
subtle it could escape the termites gnawing.
The stories of
Cities & Desire consider discovery, wage slavery
idealisation. There are also stories of Cities & Signs,
speculate upon how buildings define their function, how the signs of
the city repeat themselves -- we are told that the stories are emblems
of the cities.
On a cautionary
note, I would mention that the typeface
is atrocious in the italic sections of the book I bought recently, and
in other copies of this edition Iíve seen. I donít think Iím being
over-finicky because I wouldnít normally trouble my head about the font
of a book, but the effect is disappointing in a volume one might buy to
treasure. So do take a look inside before purchasing, and complain to
Vintage if you donít like what you see.
recommend this as a
book to visit, stroll around, and re-visit, rather than necessarily
proceed through according to a strict itinerary. Calvino probably sums
it up as follows:
descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had
this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost,
stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off.
Masurel lives in
the city of Bath, a city like no other: not quite invisible, with a
plethora of seagulls, scaffolding and soft clotted creamy stone. It
might simply be the memory of any city you have never visited, yet long
Publisher: Vintage Classics
1997 (First published in Italian in 1972; in the UK s1974)
Calvino was born in Cuba and grew up in Italy. His other
includes If On A Winter's Night A Traveller and Mr Palomar.
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