Review: Invisible Cities (1972)

[Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1972)]

Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities. 1972. Trans William Weaver. 1974. London: Picador, 1979.

It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. I sit alone at my desk. In front of me sits a half finished bottle of wine. Next to it lies a laptop. I stare at it. The laptop stares back at me with its blank screen, seemingly taunting me for my inability to turn that blankness into something, into anything. I turn away. In one hand I have a book, and in the other, a glass of wine. The hope is that the wine will make my thoughts more lucid, more focused. I need it to. My mind is currently a cluster fuck of indiscernible thoughts and ideas. I have no clue where to begin. The source of my troubles and newfound alcoholism is the book in my left hand: Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Now, I've written book reviews before. Usually, it tends to be pretty straightforward. But I am at a loss with Calvino's unique novel and unusual writing style. Never have I ever read a book like this before.

Invisible Cities is about a Tartar Emperor called Kublai Khan and a young Venetian traveller called Marco Polo. Kublai Khan senses his Empire is coming to an end and is understandably troubled by it. Enter Marco Polo, who distracts him from his sadness and entertains him on a nightly basis by describing cities he has seen on his travels.

Seems straightforward, right? Well, it’s not. Invisible Cities is really an experimental and symbolic piece of literature. There is little or no story and character development, and it lacks all other conventional elements you would expect from a novel. It is instead primarily a series of dialogues describing a variety of cities in a travelogue format, with interactions between Polo and Khan thrown in intermittently as a sort of reflection on the descriptions of cities, which is the bulk of the text. This makes for an unusual and, at first, boring read.

Added to this is Calvino’s diction. Throughout the course of Invisible Cities it's as if he were allergic to small, simple words. His appetite for complicated words in conjunction with his heavy use of lyrical prose makes the book a slow one to read. His description of a lot of the cities - for example, Anastasia:

such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave

- will leave most readers scratching their heads and doing a double take.

You really need to think about each line and the construction of his sentences and that is a time-consuming process. Because of this, the book is initially quite hard to engage with, and I found myself regretting my decision to purchase the book within minutes of starting it. However, I half-heartedly continued and then something changed for the better.

I realised I had to free myself from the images which in the past had announced to me the things I sought: only then would I succeed in understanding the language of Hypatia.

As Polo comes to realise this while exploring the city of Hypatia, the reader should also abandon and free themselves from preconceived notions of what a novel or travel book should be. Calvino is not interested in creating a great story as we traditionally know it, and once that is understood, the reader can truly appreciate the genius within Invisible Cities.

As you are taken through each city philosophical questions are raised and ideas presented of what defines a city, and the novel acts as a sort of social commentary on a multitude of things, such as are all cities linked or are they all the same?

Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Irene under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Irene.

There are deep questions raised within the text, and, because the focus is more on ideas, Polo’s descriptions of cities shy away from the physical.

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn.

Calvino makes it clear that a city is not only defined by the physical. It is about the society and way of life it contains. It is about the interactions between people and the interconnectedness of everything. Calvino’s intention is to use each city as a way of offering some insight into the human condition or life, and what makes a city. The cities Polo talks about are symbols, rather than just a physical thing. There are 155 cities within the book, and each one effectively symbolically represents a theme within life, such as love and death.

Beersheba for instance is a city with clear allusions and symbolic links to ideas of Heaven and Hell.

This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city's most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised... they also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them.

Once you start to read the book with all the above in mind, the initial loathing for the language and sentence construct turns to admiration as Calvino repeatedly describes cities each more vivid and fascinating than the last. You begin to appreciate how finely it is written. Calvino creates great imagery and his cities vary so much; each has a distinctive feel and flavour. He makes the reader “see” these places and want to visit them. Places like Hypatia are easily imagined and desired:

in Hypatia you have to go to the stables and riding rings to see the beautiful women who mount the saddle, thighs naked, greaves on their calves, and as soon as a young foreigner approaches, they fling him on the piles of hay or sawdust and press their firm nipples against him.

It is a fascinating world that Calvino has created, one full of vivid imagery and questions and ideas.

Once you free yourself from what you are used to, you can begin to truly appreciate what Invisible Cities is. Calvino has created a book that is unlike any other. Perhaps it would be most appropriate to compare it to a work of art, as with art everyone sees something different and it tends to make you think even if you do not completely understand what you are looking at.

There is more to Invisible Cities than I fear I will ever understand, but Calvino truly took me on an interesting journey. Admittedly, it was a journey that led me to drinking as I struggled to put together the thoughts and ideas he left me with, but it was a worthwhile journey. If you want something different, or are a fan of books that make you think, this book, with its multiple layers and philosophical take on cities and life, comes strongly recommended. I ended up loving it.

And if you do read it, and someone soon after asks you what you thought of it and why, you too will struggle and feel to urge to take a seat and have a drink, for Calvino’s tale is so unique, so different, that it will at first leave you unsure of what you have just read. You too will be, as I previously so eloquently put it, a cluster fuck of indiscernible thoughts and ideas. And that’s not a bad thing.


BSC (2007). Book Review - Invisible Cities. Retrieved from on April 4th 2011.

Camillo, D. (2006). Le citta invisibili. Retrieved from on April 4th 2011

© Logan Carr (2011)

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