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

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 999 words.)

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