Friday, 11 November 2011

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Without a doubt Invisible Cities is the most intriguing, unusual book I have read. It is so much so a bookseller made a point of telling me it was odd when I bought it off him. He didn’t sound altogether convinced I would enjoy it.
The book is at worst surreal and confusing, at best beautiful, poetic and meaningful. To describe it best I would say it is, pure and simple, an ode to the city; any city you care to think of. Calvino is clearly a man who appreciated everything about cities from their basic design, location and purpose to the people who live in them.

The basic premise of the book is that Kublai Khan, a Chinese Emperor of immense power has vast territories he can never hope to visit in his lifetime so he employs envoys to travel the globe and report back to him on what they have seen. One of these envoys is the Italian adventurer Marco Polo who weaves wonderful descriptions of the many cities he has seen. The descriptions are often brief and rarely take up more than a page (often significantly less)and interspersed every ten pages or so are discussions between Kublai and Marco which are often very philosophical in nature.

I feel that occasionally Calvino was guilty of being too mysterious and cryptic. Sometimes I just didn’t understand what he was trying to say;

“It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist…”  

By and large I found the book fun, entertaining and meaningful but I would say it is certainly not a book for everyone and it takes a lot of hard work and imagination to appreciate it

Overall rating 4/5

Posted by Chris


  1. Ooh! I'm really excited about getting round to read this now! I've read If On A Winter's Night.. and I loved it, so added this one to my list.

    Glad that it's looking to be really good! Thanks for the review!

  2. Calvino intimidates me. I've been wanting to read If On A Winter's Night..., but am afraid I won't 'get it'.

  3. I love Calvino, did you know the author Steven Millhauser wrote a homage to this, in his book The Barnum Museum. Have you read If on a winters night a traveller probably my favourite Calvino.

  4. @ Bethany: You are welcome, it was my first Calvino and I was very impressed and a little awed, the man had a fantastic imagination. Never read anything quite like it.

    @ JoAnn: Don't be intimidated, just give it a try. I bet you'll love it! Even thought it's a thin book it demands the reader takes their time. I just went at a pace I was comfortable with although there were certain bits I just couldn't get.

    @ Parrish Lantern: If on a Winters Night a Traveller is on my TBR list and I'm looking forward to it, i'm guessing it will be very different but equally enjoyable. I've not heard of Steven Millhauser, would you recommend Barnum Museum?


  5. Hi Chris, I loved it, here's my post on this collection of tales

  6. I've had this one my TBR shelf for awhile now, but haven't picked it up. It sounds interesting, but I agree, a bit intimidating.

  7. @ Melissa: I know what you mean about intimidating books (I plan to tackle Ulysses in the new year!) but Calvino is definitely worth the effort! :o)


  8. Reading Invisible Cities is like reading the mean of life and death and emptiness and fullness and being left without any true understanding of what just happened except that you're better for it. Perfect.

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