Literature: Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities is a novel by Italian author Italo Calvino, who also wrote If On A Winters Night A Traveler. Like most of Calvino's works, Invisible Cities is as much a puzzle box as a story: it plays with the concepts of language, imagination and communication.

The novel consists of Marco Polo's descriptions of the many fantastic cities he has seen, delivered to an at first skeptical Kublai Khan. The cities are classified according to their nature: "Cities and the Dead", "Hidden Cities", "Cities and Eyes" etc. These short passages are interspersed with dialogues between the two men.

That's it.

Well, that's a superficial description of Invisible Cities. The concept is deceptively simple, but the way it is executed is amazing. Each city is unique — beautiful, chilling, simplistic, ornate — some are meditations on what cities are, some are Deconstructions, and some are metaphors for everything under the sky — but all seem similar in a way which is just beyond words.

Oddly enough, it is not an example of The City or Urban Fantasy.

Provides examples of:

  • Base on Wheels: Half a base on wheels, in Sophronia's case.
  • Beneath the Earth: Eusapia has a mirror city for the dead underground, and Argia subverts this by having the city being filled with dirt (although it is hinted that there are still inhabitants...).
  • City Planet: An unusual example: Penthesilia's outskirts cannot be left, therefore it envelops the entire planet.
  • Closed Circle: Several interesting examples. Cecilia is a city which has swallowed the world, Trude cannot be left because it is all cities and Penthesilia consists only of outskirts, leaving Marco Polo uncertain as to whether or not he can ever be not in the outskirts of that city.
  • Cut-and-Paste Suburb: An entire city. Disturbingly, it is implied that all cities are but that one city, and you can never leave.
  • Deconstruction: Both physical (a city where everything was removed but the pipes and water ducts) and metaphorical (A city where bordellos are places of silence and you should seek the stables for some intimate fun)
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each city has a feminine name. The city chapters are titled either "<adjective> cities" or "cities and the <noun>".
  • Intrepid Merchant: Subverted. Marco Polo, despite being, uh, Marco Polo, seems more interested in looking at new cities.
  • Merchant City: The Trading Cities, although some of them play with the idea.
  • Mind Screw: For example, the characters themselves discuss whether or not they can have a discussion with each other. It only gets more confusing.
  • Monster Town: The aforementioned city which was to reflect the beauty of the cosmos.
  • One Degree of Separation: Played with in Ersilia, a city which is composed of the relationships between the inhabitants.
  • Vice City: But within it lurks a city of justice, and in it, a city of vice and in it...