Calvino, Italo: Excerpt from Invisible Cities

They [Marco Polo and Kublai Khan] were silent, their eyes half-closed, reclining on cushions, swaying in hammocks, smoking long amber pipes.

Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.

At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you? “ or rather, “Does your journey take place only in the past?”

All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unprocessed places.

Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in that square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.

“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Kahn’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”

And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” (p. 27-29)

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6 Responses to “Calvino, Italo: Excerpt from Invisible Cities”

  1. sociolution Says:

    At times when reading this book I find that I am Khan, tantalized by the descriptions of spaces that can’t fully materialize in my thoughts by the words and symbols Polo is using to describe them. I am steadily learning the language of Calvino’s imagination.
    When I was first recommended this book I asked what it was about. The answer consisted of an amazingly vague explanation of how Marko Polo upon meeting Kublai Khan briefly describes all the different and diverse cities he had discovered on his journey. But the cities that were being described in the book were somehow unreal. Knowing nothing of Italo Calvino I pressed the question: how does the author describe these “invisible cities”? What makes them unreal and how is it he can describe them as such. I had a simple notion that the cities were things out of a fantasy painting, complete with dragons and lots of smoke. It seems now that the description of the book would need a performative vocabulary much like the descriptions of the cities contained within. I was given little more than “it’s just a good read and you should just read it.” Now I’m finding a multitude of potential imaginative interpretations only a few chapters into the book. It’s a cerebral playground of space and time, prodding at memory as a subject but also poking at the actual and perceived memories of a previous chapter or conversation between the two characters.
    So at times the act of reading the book feels very much like how I imagine Khan feels when his informant acts out the journey. Every page offers inner revelations brought on by delicately woven descriptions of relationships, relationships amidst and in-between seemingly conceptually symbiotic characteristics. Projecting into Khan is also dependent on sharing the voice of Marco Polo, as if talking to yourself. In this way it has a real “Never Ending Story” feel when holding the book. There is a passage in the second chapter that explains how it is the lack of a common vocabulary between the two characters that primes the drama of Marco Polo’s descriptions. As the characters begin to develop a common vocabulary the drama disappears. Descriptions become recitations. They realize that eventually their dance will be reduced to a silent, psychic rest. Learning the language of Calvino’s imagination, the book is beginning to read itself, and I myself.

  2. susan b Says:

    i’m intrigued..i actually think i could follow this one.

    “the traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and never will have”.

    doesn’t this also direct his thoughts to what he could have by approaching his experiences (cities) differently? or does he always look back in time to experience his present?

    obviously i haven’t read this book, only the excerpt above…

  3. sociolution Says:

    The focus on ownership is definitely very loud at the end.

    I’m really attracted to the line: “the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unprocessed places.” Which I think shares a mirroring relationship with the beginning of the answer: “the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there.” So at times discovery takes place against the head of the past’s arrow through time and also in memory. It seems that for a traveler the past and future are interchangeable, as if the scales are always set and level.

    Possession and familiarity seem somewhat synonymous and are terms of value. His ownership takes the form of the traveler’s perspective in that moment of discovery, which is constant.

    I wonder: if a state of mind could be given a value, would it be possible for that value to fluctuate given that it is the state of mind of this archetypal “traveler”, a state of mind of constant discovery and rearrangement. Is there like a value scale when all you’re doing is rearranging your perspectives.

  4. susan b Says:

    “…state of mind of constant discovery and rearrangement. …value scale when all you’re doing is rearranging your perspectives”. Imagine a state of mind where perspectives were NOT rearranged and no moments of discovery were made…then perhaps the foreignness of what one no longer is or possesses remains undiscovered and thus one never is or possesses.

  5. amber r hinkle Says:

    and here the whole time i thought marco polo was just a water game! wonder how that came to be!? anyhow, im going to assume that this book does different things for different people. it seems by the way you describe the book that a dream world is being described….seeing how im obsessed with what i dream about, i might have to pick this book up and read it.

  6. sociolution Says:

    🙂 Far out Mom,
    I believe they’re smoking opium in this passage. I’m not sure how crucial of an influence the pipe is on their interactions but the image of smoking the amber pipe and having the conversation is a sophisticated one. I think it’s an important part of their interaction, to imply a centered mind. The two characters aren’t actually talking to one another. They are sitting in silence which is the reason for all the “could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself”. The sort of stillness Marco Polo has here as he is meditating on his journey is something like the “undiscovered never is, and never possesses” state of mind you proposed. Maybe what we are reading is Marco Polo deciding to stop traveling thus stop discovering and be still.

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