Thursday, May 14, 2015

book review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

translated by William Weaver 

The backstory: Invisible Cities is one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. It's also Mr. Nomadreader's favorite book of all time and one of the first two selections for The "Darling, but..." Book Club.

The basics: Invisible Cities is mostly a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which Polo describes the cities he's seen on his journey to and from Venice and the Mongol Empire.

My thoughts: There's a lot of pressure when you read your favorite person's favorite book. Mr. Nomadreader and I have been discussing this book for years, as it's themes of cities and travel come up so frequently in our lives. Yet when we started watching "Marco Polo" on Netflix this winter, and I kept pausing to ask questions because I didn't know enough about that historical period to be able to follow (my world history pre-1900 is embarrassingly bad), I discovered that the plot of Invisible Cities is actually conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Although I knew both of their names, I didn't understand their historical connection (again, embarrassing, I know.)

Invisible Cities is very much a book of ideas. As such, it is at times utterly brilliant, but at times I also found my mind wandering a bit. It tackles big ideas about time, place, and space in beautiful ways:
Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.
I can absolutely see why people love and revere it, as there are passages I love and revere in it, but I can also see how it's a frustrating read for some people.

Favorite passage:  "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."

The verdict: Invisible Cities is part poetry and part prose. It's both an intimate conversation and a book of big ideas. It's abstract and concrete. It's haunting, but at times it's too mellow. It's a book I imagine benefits from re-reading with a pen in hand to make notes about connections between different cities and different tales. It's not my favorite novel ever, but I see why Mr. Nomadreader loves it so much. Perhaps if I had discovered it at a different time in my life, it could be my favorite too.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 173 pages
Publication date: 1974 (English translation)
Source: personal copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Invisible Cities from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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1 comment:

  1. This certainly seems like I book you'd like given the subject of travel. I see that it;s short but I tend to not do well with poetry even when it's mixed with prose.


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