I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in Venice. The book is short and the concept is rather abstract, so the environment I found myself in lent itself quite well to Calvino’s flights of fancy.
I have heard Calvino referred to as “the poor man’s Borges”. I think it was Anthony Burgess who called him “Borges on a bad day”. I find these comparisons rather harsh. Calvino and Borges, while both writing fiction that deals with the fantastic and the abstract, have totally different styles. Borges was more of a minimalist than Ray Carver and his stories dealt with concepts like time, eternity, and myth from the perspective of the interested but aloof (and skeptical) observer. Calvino’s fictions are full of whimsy and wonder. They have the feel of fairy tales where Borges’ stories read like wonderfully erudite newspaper articles. Perhaps that is going too far, but to suggest that Calvino was the lesser writer because he was unable to grapple with the “Big Questions” as authoritatively as Borges did is nonsense.
Before I get to the actual review, I would like state that Borges is certainly my favorite of the two, but this is not due to any percieved superiority of craft. With Milorad Pavic, I assert that Borges was the best reader of the last hundred years. A reader who happened to have the ability to succinctly and capably share his interests, much to the benefit of all readers.
Invisible Cities is a book with only two characters. Well, three. The bulk of the text sees Marco Polo recounting his travels to various fantastic cities to the emperor Kublai Khan. The emperor eagerly listens to the foreigner describe cities that are by turns appalling, wonderful, unbelieveable, and tragic. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Polo is in reality describing only one place.
The chapters are all quite short, and each chapter consists of Polo’s recollection of a single city. These recollections in turn fall under one of several headings, including “Cities and Memory”, Cities and Desire”, “Cities and Signs”, “Thin Cities”, “Trading Cities”, “Cities and Death”, “Cities and Eyes”, Cities and Names”, “Cities and the sky”, etc. etc. Many of these headings are repeated throughout the book, with each city described shedding new light on the theme. Interspersed throughout are the thoughts of the Emperor, who is presiding over a dying Empire. He debates whether Polo is humoring him with these fantastic tales or if the foreigner wishes to illustrate something more meaningful with his memories. The reader, however, soon learns that Polo (Calvino) is trying to tell us all something. The Khan’s empire is our planet, and both appear to be dying out. The final passage is key:
And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”