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Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities seems simple in its narrative construction, built on the use of short sections comprised of concise chapters that may better be understood as the tales the explorer Marco Polo tells the emperor Kublai Khan. However, an incisive textual analysis confronts the reader with interpretive challenges, given that Invisible Cities is characterized by its “multi-layered sedimentation of meaning” (Leach 3). The multiple meanings ultimately all relate to a single, overarching theme: the decay caused by colonialism. The author skillfully convinces the reader of the various forms that decay can take and the range of consequences it can have on society, not just the city itself.
The first half of Invisible Cities reads as a sort of riddle, and it is only on page 86 that Marco Polo reveals the riddle. In response to Khan’s request for him to speak of Venice, Polo replies “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?…. Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice” (86). Polo, in fact, describes a laundry list of cities, each more unbelievable and fantastic than the last and each, in its own curious way, impossible to inhabit fully. Although Khan is drawn into these stories, mesmerized by Polo’s tales, there are all sorts of visible and invisible decay eroding life in the cities which, as Polo reveals, are all a single facet of Venice itself.
First, there is physical decay, which is the most obvious form of decline. While Polo emphasizes many of the lovely physical attributes of the cities he has visited-Isidora’s “spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made” (8); Moriana’s “alabaster gates…coral columns…and pediments encrusted with serpentine” (105); and Diomira’s “sixty silver domes…[and even] a crystal theater” (7)-he does not avoid mentioning and remarking about the cities that are suffering beneath the weight of the people who have inhabited it. Perhaps the most compelling example is the city of Leonia, which “refashions itself every day” (114), throwing out the unused goods of yesterday and replacing them with brand new items. Polo observes that the problems created by such waste are threatening the very foundations of the city, which is increasingly squeezed between its literal mountains of trash.
In addition, there is the very construction of some of the cities Polo visits, which are trying to avoid their own inevitable decay. Octavia is, “the spider-web city” (75), where “life is less certain…[because the residents] know the net will last only so long.” The most compelling and heart-rending example, however, is the city of Thekla, which will never be finished, as its residents will always be building as a defense against destruction. One resident, answering Polo’s question about whether the residents fear that the city will “crumble and fall to pieces” (127) if its scaffolding is removed, answers poignantly “[Yes, but] not only the city” (127), suggesting that physical decay is, perhaps, secondary to the sense of personal, social, and moral decay.
These kinds of decay are the real forms of deterioration Calvino wishes to explore. Calvino tackles this issue as early as the first page of the slim volume, observing that the colonialist enterprise inevitably causes decay; one of the most serious forms, he suggests, is the decay caused by simply not knowing. In other words, a people, city, and perhaps an entire nation, have been conquered, but the conqueror will never know that place and the people that inhabit it. The cities have been rendered, as Calvino’s title suggests, invisible. It is this not knowing that is most threatening to a city’s life, integrity, and longevity. The conqueror owns the territory, but has no stake in its day-to-day life and functions or the infrastructure that supports it. When this happens, even development is a form of decay, such as that evidenced in Thekla. The endless and meaningless construction prevents the residents of this city from engaging with one another and developing relationships, which are, after all, the real foundation and fabric of any civilization.
In fact, almost all of the relationships described by Polo in his story-telling to Khan are impoverished. There is not a single city in Invisible Cities that evidences a quality of life among residents that suggests a city where decay is fought against through the creation and preservation of meaningful human exchanges. In most cases, the inhabitants of these fantastic cities are disconnected, if they are ever mentioned or described by Polo at all. The most powerful example is the city of Chloe, where “the people who move through the streets are all strangers” (51). Polo does not make a direct judgment about the quality of life in Chloe, but states:
“At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites.
But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.” (51)
Polo continues, saying that even when they do “happen to find themselves together” (51), they never connect meaningfully. Polo suggests that the reason is that if people begin to connect with one another, their individual stories of “pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, [and] oppressions,” as well as desires and dreams, would be exposed, possibly causing conflict. Yet, one could argue that it is such connections, even conflicted, that make societies vibrant and ward off psychological decay. Warding off connection and communication with one another only speeds up the inevitable.
The notion of the inevitable is one of the central characteristics of the metropolis, writes Katznelson. It goes through a predictable and absolutely unavoidable cycle of decay and renewal (30). For that reason, humans should not resist the cycle, but rather accept it and work together within its possibilities and its limits. The problem with almost all of the cities that Polo describes to Kublai Khan is that they are absolutely unsustainable. There is a touching quality to the city of Fedora, which is remarkable for its many globes each “a blue city, the model of a different Fedora…a possible future [that] became only a toy in a glass globe” (32) The residents’ fixation on the miniature fantasy worlds in those globes represent utopic thinking. Because the fantasies these globes represent are so impossible to attain, the possibility of the city is submerged when it actually becomes dystopic.
Fortunately, there is an alternative, and Calvino allows Polo to have the last philosophical word in delivering that alternative to the reader: “[S]eek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space” (165). It is only through engagement with one another that human beings can cope with the inevitability of growth and its partner, decay. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a powerful and relevant book that offers real possibilities applicable to our contemporary societies.
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