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Invisible Cities…and The Dead

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.

From Invisible City by Italo Calvino

To visit Marco’s cities, get a used copy of Invisible Cities at Amazon.com for about 3 dollars.


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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

5 Responses to “Invisible Cities…and The Dead” Subscribe

  1. thalemonadelounge 2011/08/02 at 21:39 #

    Happy Anniversary on August 1!

  2. Osondu G.O 2011/08/04 at 03:43 #

    You seem to be in love with dark stories and its obvious you such a book critic.keep it up.Thump up!
    http//osondugo.blogspot.com

  3. N. Coppedge 2011/08/11 at 14:37 #

    so-called fabulism is underrated in literature. Maybe Calvino invented it himself. The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald included in Harold Bloom’s <> doesn’t really compare, although it might be the next runner up besides some things such as 1001 Arabian Nights in some editions. Most novels, for example, don’t compare at all (That includes Rushdie).

  4. N. Coppedge 2011/08/11 at 14:38 #

    Harold Bloom’s “Best Poems of the English Language”

  5. admin 2011/08/11 at 15:34 #

    @ Osondu: Thanks for your comment. It’s funny that you say I like dark stories because I’ve denied that fact for the longest time. Good luck with your blog by the way.

    @Coppedge: Thanks for stopping by. It’s interesting that you thought of fabulism in relation to Invisible Cities. Calvino’s earlier works like Baron in the Trees do have a more fabulist texture but his later stuff like If on A Winters Night a Traveller seem quite different. I would really love to know more about why you compare these group of works: rushdie, Khayyam, and the Arabian Nights in relation to Calvino.

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