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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

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There are themes, and then there are themes, in Italo Calvino's dense and fascinating book, Invisible Cities. It's possible to read this book on at least three levels. On one, there are themes like the nature of power; the cycle of life, death and rebirth; the illusion of happiness; and the power of language. On a second level, there's the theme of travel being the source of imagination and vice versa. On the third level is the theme of self-discovery.

Marco Polo tells tales of places he's been to the Great Khan, who at first takes them literally. Only later does he begin to suspect there's more to the stories, and the reader begins to do the same. The cities are dreams, or at least imagined landscapes, and recognizing this is the key to that third-level theme, self-discovery. If the tales are all imagined, they must tell us something about Marco Polo, which must tell us something about ourselves. Once we understand this, the purpose of the book becomes clear. It's a meditation on humanity. It's all there, parables about political power, warnings about the use and abuse of language, lessons about time and the raising up of awareness and social conscience.

The subordinate themes are building blocks. Marco Polo recites his poems in the same way students of religion or language chant, call, and repeat information to imprint it on their consciousness and to create a shared understanding of its meaning. The poems themselves are parables, like the fables used to teach children moral and historical lessons, or like the lessons one can learn from religious texts. They're all there because Polo, and through him Calvino, wants to teach us something. He wants to teach us the power of our spirits to shape the world, not in a religious sense, but in the sense that our will can create or destroy things if we want it to. We can make a better world, he's saying, if only we put our minds to it.

None of this emerges on the first reading of the book. You have to read it at least twice, read some criticism of it, and have a good long think about it in your own head, before a lot of this becomes clear. It's definitely a book to make you think.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

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, are artificial creations, and descriptions of imaginary cities are a further remove from what people conventionally assign to the realm of reality.

Still, as Marco Polo and Kublai Khan reveal in their discussions, the boundaries between reality and illusion are shifting and indistinct. All the cities described in the novel may be one and the same city and merely taking on different aspects according to the whim of the traveler. This possibility is caught well by Calvino. The city of Zemrude gets its form, the reader is told, simply from the mood of the beholder. Despina, on the other hand, can be approached from the sea or across the desert, and each side presents a totally different face to the traveler; direction determines vision.

All these descriptions of cities are fantastic and exotic, but beyond that, they are all mutable. The shifts in the urban landscapes, the changes in streets, buildings, and even inhabitants, are caused by the presence of the observer. Calvino’s marvelous cities are affected by a phenomenon well documented in anthropology and sociology, and notorious, since the early part of the twentieth century, in physics as the “uncertainty principle.”

Simply put, the presence of the observer changes the thing which is observed. An anthropologist viewing the rituals of an isolated tribe is not merely one more item in that tribe’s universe but an alien presence which profoundly, if subtly, alters that universe. In physics, one can know either the direction of an electron’s spin or its velocity, but not both, because merely to measure one fundamentally alters the other. Human and physical science seem to reveal that contact with reality at its most basic levels is both relative and uncertain.

The same message is presented in Invisible Cities. Those who live in the cities perceive one aspect of them; those who visit discern another; Marco Polo, in his talk in Kublai Khan’s evening garden, presents a third; and the printed form of Calvino’s novel further multiplies these images of reality and unreality. Both Calvino and Marco Polo are in the position of the artist who must persuade others to trust the tale but cannot compel their obedience. As Marco Polo says in Invisible Cities, “If you choose to believe me, good.”