(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Despite being called a novel, Invisible Cities is not truly a novel. There is no plot or character development. Instead, it is a collection of about fifty-five short, highly impressionistic pastiches of arbitrarily named fantastic cities (such as Adelma, Berenice, Chloe, Diomira, Irene, Penthesilea, Phyllis, Raissa, Valdrada, Zirma, and Zobeide, to name a few), placed in a structure that is quite meticulous, yet rambling, that nearly mimics the structure of a full commercial novel.

The stories are set within the framework of a very loose dialogue wherein the famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo comes to the court of the legendary emperor Kublai Khan. While there, Polo is instructed to travel the empire and gather not gold or treasure but stories with which to regale the aging, and frequently impatient, conqueror with descriptions of every city he has visited on his long peregrinations through the Mongolian realm, as Khan is bored with his own messengers’ stories. Throughout the dialogue—and a true dialogue it is, as Khan and Polo are the only two characters in the work (although a case could be made that each city is also its own character)—the emperor expresses his belief that Polo is merely describing his home city of Venice in different and fanciful ways, ways that Polo could not use with honesty or impunity in his own land. Khan also occasionally believes that the cities Polo is describing do not exist at all, except in the Venetian explorer’s imagination.

Upon a summary first reading, Invisible Cities could be considered a nice collection of prose works on imaginary cities. Indeed, during the interplay between the two characters it is difficult to tell whether the things Polo is describing represent differing aspects of a single city or different cities with the same aspect in each of them. However, it quickly becomes clear that while some passages are horribly contrived, the novel is larger in scope than mere descriptions of cities. It is a work that muses upon the concept of living in a city, the concept of home, and perhaps even the concept of belonging somewhere. Calvino’s book is also a surreal and postmodern journey through the language of the imagination, a delicious mélange of psychological states, physical states, sensory states, transcendence, and more.


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Invisible Cities consists of a series of dialogues between Marco Polo, the famous Venetian traveler, and Kublai Khan, the legendary conqueror. The two sit in Kublai Khan’s garden, and Marco Polo recounts, or perhaps invents, descriptions of a multitude of fabulous cities. Since these cities are never actually seen, but only described, they are invisible to the emperor; since they might not even exist, they may be literally unknown to everyone but the reader, who is entranced by the shimmering, haunting evocations of Marco Polo/Italo Calvino.

There is no action in the novel, merely conversation, but the reader is carried along by the descriptions of the cities, and by their careful relationship in an intricate, philosophically oriented pattern. Invisible Cities is a carefully crafted, jewel-like work which moves on at least three different levels: the verbal pictures of the cities, the philosophical interpretations, and the artistic reflections.

The cities are divided into eleven categories. There are connections between cities and memory, desire, signs, eyes, names, the dead, and the sky. There are also kinds or types of cities: thin cities, trading cities, continuous cities, and hidden cities. Marco’s description of each place corresponds meticulously to its inherent nature.

The city of Melania, for example, is among the “cities of the dead,” and its inhabitants are not living human beings but unknowing representatives of the stock types found in literature: the hypocrite, the sponger, the king’s son fallen to low estate and awaiting recognition. All the residents of the city play roles, and while the roles gradually shift and might multiply, they remain static and stereotypical, and thus, dead. “Melania’s population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another.”

Theodora, on the other hand, is among the hidden cities, and what was long concealed in its memories and libraries is unwittingly revealed by the actions of its citizens. Determined to rid their homes of vermin, they painstakingly eradicate all pests—rats, fleas, spiders. No sooner is this accomplished, however, than “the other fauna” come back to light: “Sphinxes, griffons, chimeras, dragons, hircocervi, harpies, hydras, unicorns, basilisks were resuming possession of their city.”