Monday, December 29, 2008

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

A friend from grad school, Charlie, loved Italo Calvino. He talked about him all the time and dropped references in the oddest places. So, Calvino has been on my reading list for quite a while. I decided to start with Invisible Cities, because that was the title I remember Charlie mentioning the most.

Calvino has been described as a fabulist, or writer of fables, which by definition, impart some moral lesson to the reader. The word fabulous has the same root and implies a wildly imaginative story. Both these ideas are present in this novel.

The story has Marco Polo, the well-known world traveler of the 13th century, visiting Kubla Khan (which he did). Khan had sent emissaries all over the known world to collect stories, objects, and descriptions of the cities he sent them to visit. Khan kept a map of these places, so that, according to Calvino, he could “possess his empire.” Marco knows he must do something different to set himself apart from these common, ordinary travelers.

He begins relating a list of cities he has visited with all their peculiarities. Each has a different name – many with women’s names – and each has some important defining feature. MINOR SPOLIER ALERT! Polo admits, about two-thirds of the way through his tale, that all the cities he describes are Venice.

Curiously, his tales are full of anachronisms – airplanes, trains, tobacco, telescopes, electricity, and so forth. Another curiosity is the organization. Calvino has divided the novel into nine unnamed parts. Each part contains five named and numbered chapters. In parts one through eight, the chapter numbers descend from five to one. In part 9, the pattern is this: 5, 4, 3, 2, 5, 4, 3, 5, 4, 5, ***. Interspersed among the city stories are fragments of conversations between Polo and Khan.

The moral? The story most definitely has one, but I won’t spoil that. This novel has peaked my interest in Calvino, and I have going to do some research and find some more titles to explore his fascinating world. Four stars

--Chiron, 12/29/08

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