Sunday, February 1, 2009

Invisible Cities

Another unusual and bewitching work from the ever-imaginative Italo Calvino -- though novel may not be the correct term for this collection of sketches.

The narrator, Marco Polo, is describing to Kublai Khan the cities he has visited in his travels. There are 55 in all, described in spare but evocative prose.

My favourite is the city of Armilla, which consists only of plumbing. No houses, only a forest of water pipes rising in the air. Occasionally one glimpses a woman bathing in a tub or showering in midair.

But most sketches are far less visual than this, focusing instead on mysterious behaviour and odd routines. Sophronia, for example, is composed of two half-cities, one permanent, one temporary. The former is an amusement park of roller coasters and ferris wheels. The latter is made of stone and marble; every year it is dismantled and transported to vacant lots in the amusement park.

There is no plot to unify these tales, and the reader, like Kublai Khan, struggles to extract meaning from them. Wide and exotic his kingdom may be, yet how can such cities be real? Are they different views of the same city, Marco Polo's Venice perhaps? Can they be likened to squares on a chessboard, or an atlas of cities not yet discovered?

Further complications are the names of the cities (all feminine) and the order in which they appear. The 55 cities are composed of eleven groups:

Cities and memory
Cities and desire
Cities and signs
Thin cities
Trading cities
Cities and eyes
Cities and names
Cities and the dead
Cities and the sky
Continuous cities
Hidden cities

Within each group there are five cities, numbered thusly:

Cities and memory 1
Cities and memory 2
Cities and memory 3
Cities and memory 4
Cities and memory 5

These sketches are scattered throughout the book in nine numbered sections. The middle sections (2-8) contain five fables each, while the first and last sections contain ten each. The order of the first section seems arbitrary:

Cities and memory 1
Cities and memory 2
Cities and desire 1
Cities and memory 3
Cities and desire 2
Cities and signs 1
Cities and memories 4
Cities and desire 3
Cities and signs 2
Thin cities 1

But a glance at the second section reveals the secret:

Cities and memory 5
Cities and desire 4
Cities and signs 3
Thin cities 2
Trading cities 1

The numerical pattern is repeated through the remaining sections, save the last, whose order is now predetermined:

Cities and the dead 5
Cities and the sky 4
Continuous cities 3
Hidden cities 2
Cities and the sky 5
Continuous cities 4
Hidden cities 3
Continuous cities 5
Hidden cities 4
Hidden cities 5

The significance of the book's mathematical structure is murky. Either it is done purely for effect (unlikely), or it is invested with a meaning I've not been able to decipher (likely).

Eventually I found myself imagining the book as a deck of cards, the kind used for divination, partly because of the elusive meaning of the tales, and partly because the eleven city groups reminded me of suits.

Were I to read this book again, I might forsake the order of the sketches as they appear in the book, and read them group by group in correct numerical sequence.