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Luke Williams
Luke Williams

Invisible Cities

The book explores imagination and the imaginable through the descriptions of cities by an explorer, Marco Polo. The book is framed as a conversation between the elderly and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his expanding and vast empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing 55 fictitious cities that are narrated by Polo, many of which can be read as parables or meditations on culture, language, time, memory, death, or the general nature of human experience.

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities deconstructs an archetypal example of the travel literature genre, The Travels of Marco Polo, which depicts the journey of the famed Venetian merchant across Asia and in Yuan China (Mongol Empire). The original 13th-century travelogue shares with Calvino's novel the brief, often fantastic accounts of the cities Polo claimed to have visited, along with descriptions of the city's inhabitants, notable imports and exports, and whatever interesting tales Polo had heard about the region.

Invisible Cities is an example of Calvino's use of combinatory literature, and shows clear influences of semiotics and structuralism. In the novel, the reader finds themselves playing a game with the author, wherein they must find the patterns hidden in the book. The book has nine chapters, but there are also hidden divisions within the book: each of the 55 cities belongs to one of eleven thematic groups (explained below). The reader can therefore play with the book's structure, and choose to follow one group or another, rather than reading the book in chronological chapters. At a 1983 conference held at Columbia University, Calvino himself stated that there is no definite end to Invisible Cities because "this book was made as a polyhedron, and it has conclusions everywhere, written along all of its edges."[1]

He moves back and forth between the groups, while moving down the list, in a rigorous mathematical structure. The table below lists the cities in order of appearance, along with the group they belong to:

The matrix of eleven column themes and fifty-five subchapters (ten rows in chapters 1 and 9, five in all others) shows some interesting properties. Each column has five entries, rows only one, so there are fifty-five cities in all. The matrix of cities has a central element (Baucis). The pattern of cities is symmetric with respect to inversion about that center. Equivalently, it is symmetric against 180 degree rotations about Baucis. Inner chapters (2-8 inclusive) have diagonal cascades of five cities (e.g. Maurila through Euphemia in chapter 2). These five-city cascades are displaced by one theme column to the right as one proceeds to the next chapter. In order that the cascade sequence terminate (the book of cities is not infinite!) Calvino, in chapter 9, truncates the diagonal cascades in steps: Laudomia through Raissa is a cascade of four cities, followed by cascades of three, two, and one, necessitating ten cities in the final chapter. The same pattern is used in reverse in chapter 1 as the diagonal cascade of cities is born. This strict adherence to a mathematical pattern is characteristic of the Oulipo literary group to which Calvino belonged.

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities might be labeled travelogue. It was, in fact, the traveler in me that first fell under its spell. The places Calvino describes, though, don't exist on any map. Technically, this is a novel, a work of fiction, but one without any storyline. The only characters are an aging Kublai Khan and a young-ish Marco Polo. They're sitting in a garden, where the Venetian explorer is regaling the Mongol ruler with tales of the cities he has seen journeying to the far reaches of Khan's vast empire. Each short chapter describes a different city, 55 in all.

In each tale, Calvino reminds me that the cities in my mind are wholly distinct from their physical manifestations, that how I perceive and negotiate a place says infinitely more about me than it does about the space.

Classical historian Prof Michael Scott takes us on an extraordinary journey through the often-invisible treasures of one of the greatest ancient cities in the world - Istanbul. The city has been at the crossroads of Europe and Asia for over two and a half millennia. From the Greeks and Romans through the Ottomans to the Turks, Istanbul has been fought over, destroyed and rebuilt time after time. 041b061a72


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