You: What is Invisible Cities?
[P]: A short Borgesian novel by Italo Calvino in which the traveller Marco Polo describes a series of [mostly fantastical] cities for the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan.
You: What’s it all about?
[P]: I just told you.
You: No, you gave me a synopsis. What’s it really about? What was this Calvino guy trying to say?
[P]: Ah, shit.
You: You don’t know?
[P]: I’m not sure. It’s hard to explain. Marcel Proust once wrote, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
You: Is that relevant?
[P]: Yes, of course.
You: How so?
[P]: Ah, shit.
You: How many times have you read the book?
You: And you still can’t say anything meaningful about it?
[P]: Well, one man’s meaningful is another man’s rambling incoherent bullshit. I’m wary of rambling.
You: It has never worried you before.
[P]: That’s a good point.
You: So proceed.
[P]: Well, the reader is told in one of the linking narrative sections that the two men don’t speak the same language, that they actually communicate via signs and objects. One imagines that as a consequence of speaking different languages, and the subsequent miscommunication between them, that both have a different conception/understanding of the cities being ‘described.’ The cities of Kublai Khan’s mind, then, could be the invisible [non-existent] cities of the title, as he, unlike Polo, has never seen them but only ‘heard’ of them from someone else.
Yet while this idea of an elaborate Chinese whispers appeals to me, I am not certain that there is enough evidence to support a claim that it was Calvino’s intention to explore it. Indeed, that something, like a city, can exist in two different forms in the imaginations of two different men, that it can change in appearance as it passes from the mind of one person to the mind of another, throws up interesting questions about the nature and reliability of knowledge, and also, if one ignores for a moment the claim that the two men are communicating via signs etc, touches on the merits and otherwise of oral storytelling. Yet, it is Polo’s descriptions that are fantastical, we are not privy to Kublai’s interpretations. To give weight to the idea that this is really a book about communication, about building images in one’s mind, there would need to be some sense that Polo’s descriptions are at odds with his listener’s understanding of what he is told, and there isn’t.
You: So you’ve told me what you don’t think the book is about?
You: Are you always like this?
[P]: No, but…
You: If someone asks you for directions to the supermarket do you tell them how to get to the library?
[P]: No, but Invisible Cities suggests many interpretations.
You: Does it? On the reverse of the novel itself there is a quote by Paul Bailey who claims that it is a paean to Venice, that the descriptions of seemingly distinct places are actually descriptions of that one city.
[P]: I’m aware of that. But doesn’t that indicate that knowledge of Venice would be necessary in order to understand or fully appreciate Calvino’s work?.
You: I guess so.
[P]: I just don’t quite buy that, as it seems extraordinarily cheeky of a writer to expect his readership to hop on a plane to Italy in order to be able to make sense of his book.
You: You’re not much of a traveller, then?
[P]: I…well…the thing is, whenever I go anywhere I find that the place was more romantic, more beautiful, more special in my mind, in anticipation, than it is in reality. I am always disappointed whenever I go anywhere.
You: Life must be a real bitch for you.
[P]: Yes, but I think that might be what Calvino was getting at. My favourite interpretation of Invisible Cities would be that Kublai Khan knows that Polo is not telling the truth when he recounts his tales of marvellous places, but prefers these wonderful imaginative cities to the actual cities over which he rules, that like Don Quixote this magical world is more appealing to him than the real thing.
You: So there you are, you do know what the book is about.
[P]: No. Because I am not totally convinced of this interpretation either. Indeed, the thought that struck me with the most vehemence whilst reading it was that this is a novel about understanding the essence of cities, rather than their purely physical appearance. I wrote something about myself…
You: Ah, shit.
[P]: Is that objectionable to you?
You: [Sighing deeply] No, no. Go on then, what did you write…[almost indistinctly} about yourself?
[P]: I wrote…
To understand my home city I have to understand another, to see it I have to see another, for it is that other city that gives this one, my home, existence; it is that other city that brought me here, that made here possible. That other city is London. When I try to see London, I see:
A photobooth in Paddington station, that might not exist anymore, that might never have existed in Paddington station, for maybe it was in Marylebone station. Or Kings Cross. But for me it is there in Paddington station, forever.
A girl in a red coat, fairytale-like, emerging out of the crowd on Camden High Street; opposite, across the road, is a megastore, the name of which is obscured; behind me is Camden tube station.
The girl: Jemmia, two weeks before she tried to kill herself for the first time. Or three weeks. Or maybe even four. And who is to say her coat was red? And yet I see it with the same kind of certainty and assurance as if the image of her in it is tattooed on my arm.
My London is an imaginary London, it exists only within me. I trace it not with my feet or my hands or my eyes, but ghost-like through my memories. And yet this dream of London has a pull and an influence on me stronger than the four walls that will keep me tonight or the street I’ll tread tomorrow.
It is times like this that you start to realise that your whole life is a dream, an unmanageable and complex web of dreams and imaginings.
You: Y’know, that’s not half as bad as I feared.
[P]: Thanks, I guess.
You: But still you’re mostly just stalling for time.
[P]: Maybe. Thing is, we could do this forever and I will still probably be unable to adequately describe, sum up, or understand Invisible Cities. In fact, it occurs to me now all I have done is to essentially outline a series of Invisible Novels. At the very least, I hope one of them inspires you to read to Calvino’s.
You: I’ll get back to you on that.