Sunday, October 03, 2010

Invisible Cities

I have been re-reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities while in Italy and it has been a remarkable experience. It is a very simply told book – an account of the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which Marco Polo tells of the various fantastical cities he has visited on his travels. Each city takes only or two pages to describe, but on nearly every page there is an intriguing thought or a startling idea about travel, memory, desire, the past.

One of the themes that comes out very strongly is the impossibility of knowing a city – that cities are more than simply their buildings, people and geography, but are also composed of their pasts and the relationships between their peoples. Moreover as we travel to new cities, we can only ever interpret what we see through what we have seen before, and our experiences lead therefore to an understanding not of the new and the foreign, but only of the old and familiar – ultimately our own city of origin and our very selves.

Here are some passages that I have found particularly stimulating:

In vain, great hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high Bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know that this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurement of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window...

...sometimes different cities follow one another one the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them...

... the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities. the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys. and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth. and the surroundings of home. and a little square of Venice where he gambolled as a child... the traveller’s past changes according to the route he has followed...

Clarice, the glorious city, has a tormented history. Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again, always keeping the first Clarice as an unparalleled model of every splendour, compared to which the city’s present state can only cause more sighs at every fading of the stars...

And yet, almost nothing was lost of Clarice’s former splendour; it was all there, merely arranged in a different order... The days of poverty were followed by more joyous times: a sumptuous butterfly-Clarice emerged from the beggared chrysalis-Clarice... and the more the new city settled triumphantly into the place and the name of the first Clarice, the more it realised it was moving away from it, destroying it no less rapidly than the rats and the mould. Despite its pride in its new wealth, the city, at heart, felt itself incongruous, alien, a usurper.

And then the shards of the original splendour that had been saved, by adapting them to more obscure needs, were again shifted. They were now preserved under glass bells, locked in display cases, set on velvet cushions, and not because they might be used for anything, but because people wanted to reconstruct through them a city of which no on knew anything now.

Dawn had now broken when he said “Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”
“There is still one of which you never speak.”
Marco Polo bowed his head.
Venice” the Khan said.
Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”
The emperor did not turn a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.”
And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice... To distinguish other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”

3 comments:

meredith said...

you gave away the punchline...

jm said...

i didn't think anyone would actually read it.

Anonymous said...

I thought a lot of If On A Winter's..
touched on this- I traveled much when I was a teen and saw things which to this day a cannot explain. They hang in my conscious, suspended like some vestigal organ.Only not something I may have developed beyond.