Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Calvino’s vivid and haunting descriptions make up a large part of the charm of Invisible Cities, and Calvino’s travelogue of wonders, his evocations of cities suspended on ropes over chasms, or constructed entirely of pipes and inhabited by water sprites, are part of the narrative tradition of the fantastic that may be traced back to The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.

This travelogue is only part of the interlocking nature of the book, however, for layered above and below it are philosophical and artistic considerations. Do the cities described by Marco Polo exist, even in the fictional empire of the great Kublai Khan? Does that empire itself have any substance beyond the evanescent words used by the traveler to beguile the weary emperor? What is the nature of reality, and how can one recognize it? These questions, perhaps playfully put, are nevertheless important, and form the substantial core of Calvino’s seemingly light entertainment. Despite the bright, sometimes bizarre settings, then, Invisible Cities has a serious side, one which reflects Italo Calvino’s preoccupation with the interaction of reality and art.

“Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.” Those phantasms are created by human beings, and the zodiac is fashioned by the artist. The seemingly paradoxical interaction of fantasy with reality is Calvino’s main concern in this book. Cities, as much as the books describing them,...

(The entire section is 614 words.)