Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. A bewitching little book. No use trying to figure out what it is. Is it a collection of poems, a series of vignettes, a novel, a travel guide, an ethnographic commentary, a bureaucratic document, a lineup of fireside tales, a meditation? What I can tell you is that it’s a rewrite or, rather, a remix of Marco Polo’s Travels, a 13th century travelogue.
Picture Marco Polo and the Great Khan of the Tartars in an oriental garden. They are smoking. Their pipes are glowing in the darkness, burning leafs handpicked from the royal herbarium. The aroma is heady and the air is cloudy, like a dream. The Khan is playing chess. But he’s also reflecting on the passing of his kingdom and reading maps with roads that lead to utopias. Marco, on the other hand, is on a visionary state of mind. He’s describing cities that may not exist on real maps but that exist within the heart of every city in the world. Are cities not, at the end of the day, simply places where desire and dream and exchange and death take place? Read about Argia, the city of the dead and tell me what you are reminded of.
What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling, on every stair another stairway is set in negative, over the roofs of the houses hangs layers of rocky rain like skies with clouds. We do not know if the inhabitants can move about the city, widening the worm tunnels and the crevices where roots twist: the dampness destroys people’s bodies and they have scant strength; everyone is better off remaining still, prone; anyway, it is dark. From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, “It’s down below there,” and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam.
To visit Marco’s cities, get a used copy of Invisible Cities at Amazon.com for about 3 dollars.