Friday, July 29, 2016
Review of Invisble Cities by Italo Calvino
Like a shifting succession of M.C. Escher lithographs, Invisible Cities builds the imagery of various cities, real and real alike, from various perspectives. The fictional spine joining this skeleton of imagery is Marco Polo, sitting at the feet of Kublai Khan and recounting his journeys through various urban centers spotting the Silk Road. Accurate memory slipping into tall tale and back again, the subjectivity inherent to Polo’s recollections serves to construct and deconstruct the cities through time. The details of architecture and quotidian life in the cities, both real and imaginary, are paraded before the reader’s visual cortex. Always at the core, however, is the transitory nature of both the existence and perception of these elements, existence anything but static.
Meticulously organized, Invisible Cities literally has a matrix-shaped structure. Despite the free-flow of imagery, it is a subtly systematic transition; the form and movement of the novel reflects its substance. Calvino certainly presenting the the “invisibility” of the cities as something of the imagination and/or memory, yet at the same time, it’s possible to experience the towers and walls, roofs and homes as the non-existence of something that once actually existed. It follows that, the cities portrayed slowly fade while new cities rise, all the while Polo’s conversation with the Khan goes deeper and deeper. Moving from the façade of the cities into the ideas inherent to them, the imagery subtly evolves from romanticized to something less-so.
If you, like so many readers, buy books looking for interesting characters and dramatic storylines, Calvino’s novel is not for you. Invisible Cities is surrealism in written form—for connoisseurs of fiction. More Salvador Dali than Neil Gaiman, the conventions of fiction are set aside to represent the human condition and its urban creations in artistic form. Calvino touches upon numerous ideas that could be spun off into innumerable stories of their own. Signs and meaning, the subjectivity of perception and memory, the human desire to tell stories, the evolution, cycles of existence, etc.—all are presented in a detailed blend of possible and impossible vignettes at the feet of the might Khan. Superlative literature.
*A side note of genre interest: It’s absolutely fascinating to me that Invisible Cities was nominated for the 1976 Nebula Award. Books such as Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book, David Brin’s Startide Rising, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Robert J. Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment—i.e. mediocre fiction, at best—having won the award since, it goes to show how far literary awareness among science fiction authors has regressed, since. I mean, why haven’t other such literary novels using elements of the futuristic or fantastic been nominated since? I know the answer (the main of sf&f has dumbed itself down from the intellectual high point of the New Wave), but I still think the question has value, perhaps even inspiration? To even consider Invisible Cities alongside 2016’s Nebula nominees is laughable…
Posted by Jesse at 9:36 AM