Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino


In Invisible Cities Marco Polo conjures up cities of magical times for his host Kublai Khan, but gradually it becomes clear that he is actually describing one city: Venice.  As Gore Vidal wrote ‘of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.’

Given Italo Calvino’s unique way of making each of his books so stylistically distinct from each other, it’s always difficult to pick a favourite, so today I shall claim that it is this book,  as a proper scrutiny of which one is really my favourite could devolve into a complex mess that would involve copious note taking, soul searching and perhaps some prescription drugs.

I suppose then, this review should be set in place in its new category of perfectly irrelevant, at least according to Mr Vidal, but for anyone willing to take a chance on something as creative and compelling as this, then I consider the below squiggles to be perfectly relevant:

You don’t rush Calvino books, with another of his fine works Mr Palomar I spent eight days reading its 128 pages and Invisible Cities coming in at a grand 148 pages took me all of four days to read as I stopped after nearly every page to try to visualise his ideas, I also had some weird dreams too.

The synopsis seems to give little away but in fact it does the opposite, the book consists of conversations both physical as well as metaphysical, between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. They discuss the big and small concepts of life and these are illustrated through the descriptions of a number of cities. That may not sound the most exciting concept to you dear readers but the way they are thought out and imagined is thoroughly magical.

There are plenty of books that evoke the spirit of past ages when any outlandish stories about cities, peoples and creatures would be believed but it takes a special kind of author who can bring us cynical modern folk back to that age and get us to invest a decent amount of our time in such illusory places.

Each city we are introduced to is totally different and yet they all bear subtle similarities to each other, the way each one is described and rendered in the imagination of this reader leaves a lasting impression and fascination with their inner workings.  The range of ideas and thoughts expressed on the perspectives of cities is fascinating and it is certainly one of those books that makes you ponder, not only on what the message behind each city is but the deeper meaning of the nature of our understanding of the universe.

It is extremely fun to start reading of a city and build it up only to have your viewpoint whirled around to a completely opposite way of looking at things, I suppose like the literary equivalent of M.C Escher, but further to that it also gives you a desire to explore it and potter down all the streets with unsatiated curiosity and experience the nature of the people who dwell within these dreamy worlds. Although grounded in the past, the future is allowed to bleed through in this book, making it a slightly surreal experience as it makes context elusive and lends the book a more timeless and at times haunting appeal.

The depth and Attention to detail has rarely seemed more magical than when enveloped in a calvino read, bringing everyday objects and mundane things to life in a new way that you are ashamed to not have seen for yourself.  It also gives the wider sense of ourseves just passing through something that is to big to ever be comprehended yet to experience and observe it can give you the ability to understand and know it.  Welcome to the contradictory, alluring and wonderful world of Italo Calvino.

12 Replies to “Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino”

    1. Outside of Europe it seems to be widely viewed as his best book, not sure if that is cultural differences or whatever but I enjoyed If On…with its different styles. I agree it’s well written but seems to slow down towards the end. Read his others though, Castle of Crossed Destinies and this book are a lot tighter.


    1. There is so much in it, I would love to be able to write a book like it. I think it is my favourite of his on reflection. he puts down ideas simply, that other authors have to write for 500-600 pages in order to get across.


  1. A great review SteJ, I enjoyed your words. I can’t decide which would be more interesting (entertaining & enlightening) a conversation with Calvino or the imaginary ones with Polo and Kahn. Great read, Great review, thank you!.


    1. Good question, Calvino I always imagine would have been a grumpy soul, whereas Kublai Kahn strikes me as whimsical if short tempered. Not sure what makes me think that, glad you liked it, I shall be getting back into the swing of things properly after the upheaval of everything subsides.


    1. It certainly is, I could have just thought about all those cities for days on end and not moved. It’s a book to get caught up in and your imagination fired up.


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