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Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino
(translated by William Weaver)

" Travelers 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

It 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 blades. 

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 fanciful translations. 

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 -- 

through the 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 and idealisation. There are also stories of Cities & Signs, that 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.

I would 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: 

The 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.

Pauline 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 to.

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"   

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead" 


PublisherVintage Classics

Publication Date: 1997 (First published in Italian in 1972; in the UK s1974)

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: No

Author bio: Italo Calvino was born in Cuba and grew up in Italy. His other fiction includes If On A Winter's Night A Traveller and Mr Palomar.

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If you liked this book you might also like....

Italo Calvino "Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories" & "Six Memos for the Next Millenium"

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