In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo conjures up cities of magical times for his host, the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan, but it gradually becomes clear that he is actually describing one city: Venice. As Gore Vidal wrote: “Of all tasks, describing the contents of the book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.”
Invisible Cities is one of those weird books that are impossible to categorise. Possibly Calvino’s best-known work, the framing device bears little relation to the content of the majority of the book, and even to itself at times… so how to review it?
Invisible Cities is a short story stuck together with a book, to make something that if looked at from the right angle makes a novel, but is otherwise a bizarre and wonderful literary experiment. The framing device, of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo talking, jumps around, moves backwards and forwards, takes on different aspects and styles, and really is just a vehicle for broad philosophical and narratological discussion; we move through prose style to straightforward dialogue to drama-style layout, and these sections interact in various ways, some continuing directly from the previous interlude, others jumping on in completely different ways.
But these aren’t the core of Calvino’s book. That core is the invention of the cities themselves, the cities of Invisible Cities. Each of these is a page or two long, a description of an aspect of a city that captures the spirit of that city; each is weird and wonderful, utterly fantastical, and indeed rather bizarre in many cases. A number of them feel familiar to fantasy readers, arguably because they’ve influenced the genre directly; Calvino’s book is one of those that is upheld, consistently, as a classic translated genre fiction piece. It engages interestingly with the idea of urbanity, of what makes a city, and of what makes a fiction; the relationships between these cities is at most abstract, although they’re also categorised, and each section between the different interludes works fascinatingly as a collection.
Invisible Cities is, fundamentally, impossible to review; but at the same time, it is more than worth talking about, both in terms of what Calvino is trying to do, and how he is trying to do it. A really interesting experience.