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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

The two, and only real characters in Invisible Cities are the famous Portuguese explorer Marco Polo and the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Though both are historical figures from the 13th century, the novel is a fictional account of Polo's descriptions of his travels through Khan's kingdom.

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Polo is not a necessarily a reliable narrator and the author states from the beginning that

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco says when he describes the cities visited on his expedition.

He does, however, enjoy listening to his tales. One reason the author give for this is

In the lives of emperors there is a moment . . . that this empire . . . which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless formless ruin . . . Only in Marco's Polo's account was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle that it could escape the termites gnawing.

At first Polo can only describe his adventures through the use of pantomime,

one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant's beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched.

but as his knowledge of Tartar improves he starts to express his travels through both language and movement.

The emperor is not a patient listener and it soon becomes apparent that his reason for hearing the stories is to "possess my empire."

At one point he states:

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

Marco Polo

Marco Polo, a Venetian traveler, now resident in the court of Kublai Khan. Marco is one of many emissaries reporting to Kublai, serving him by helping him to understand the subjects of his vast empire. At first, not knowing the Tartar language, Marco communicates with Kublai by means of gestures and pantomime, sometimes resorting to displaying objects to suggest narratives and descriptions. Once he has learned Tartar, Marco speaks, but, accustomed to the early emblematic communications, Kublai prefers to mix speech with pantomime. A sort of “mute commentary” is created when the two of them sit silently immobile, in private meditation, each imagining what the other is asking or saying. Regardless of idiom, Marco insists that all the cities he describes exist only as he has perceived them and that all communication is an act of creation. The emphasis placed on the perceiver applies equally to Kublai’s act of listening. As Marco explains, “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.” Marco’s insistence on this theory has the effect of arousing suspicion in Kublai and creates the principal dramatic tension of the story.

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan, the Tartar emperor. As a listener to Marco’s fantastic descriptions, Kublai is impatient and becomes progressively more domineering. Kublai’s interest in the stories is motivated by his determination to possess his empire one day, which he believes he cannot do without knowing and understanding it. He thus hopes for patterns in Marco’s descriptions, so that, without knowing every city, he can comprehend the empire. At Marco’s claim that none of this is possible, Kublai shows his impatience with varying degrees of intensity: by demanding that Marco describe the cities simply and directly; by physically attacking Marco and accusing him of representing only dreams and moods; and, in occasional desperate attempts, by himself describing cities and asking Marco whether they exist. When Kublai decides to have Marco cease traveling to play chess with him, to deduce cities from configurations of the...

(The entire section contains 1173 words.)

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Critical Essays