Invisible Cities

by Italo Calvino

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is an experimental novel that does not have the typical literary elements of a novel. In fact, Invisible Cities could be considered a collage of short prose pieces about imaginary cities in the guise of a novel. The only literary structure that is similar to a novel is the dialogue between Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the aging conqueror Kublai Khan.

The set up for Marco Polo's stories is similar to One Thousand and One Nights, in which a powerful ruler commands another character to tell him stories. This framework is necessary to set up the collection of descriptions Marco Polo tells Khan. While the intent or vision of Calvino could be interpreted in various ways, the most common theme among the various urban descriptions is an astute observation on city life.

Today, the field of urban studies in academia is similar to what Calvino, through the character of Marco Polo, articulates in the book. There is also a sense of longing for home. Marco Polo, after all, is thousands of miles from his home city of Venice, and Khan wonders if Polo is simply describing multiple aspects of Venice to compose stories about the fictional cities.

In this context, it is possible that Calvino believes that geography and memory are intertwined. Marco Polo paints vivid details of his native city based on his memory of it rather than real-time observations. One's memory of a place is not accurate, since people tend to glorify or vilify a locale based on their current emotions regarding that place. One who misses their hometown will say that it is the greatest city in the world. On the other hand, a person who is tired of the daily city life and who wants to see new horizons will highlight the negative aspects of their hometown. Through Marco Polo's composite sketches of these fictional cities, Calvino concludes that a city is just as much a place in one's mind as it is an actual place.

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