Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino 1972

Calvino wrote this classic tale in the 1970’s at a time when Surrealism and the Oulipo group were at their peak, and those influences are evident in this fantastical story of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.  Polo, a Venetian merchant who traveled the Silk Road to the heart of Asia, and Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor from 1260-1294 and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty uniting China for the first time, engage in a wide-ranging conversation while sitting and smoking cigars in the Khan’s palace.  Polo describes 55 different cities in the empire, each with a woman’s name and each demonstrating unique and magical qualities.  What could be considered a treatise on cities and urban design raises questions about whether Polo is describing reality or interpreting his own or the Khan’s dreams. The underlying theme is the question of what is reality and what are the defining characteristics of place, time, and person.  Calvino’s extra-ordinary imagination is on display as is his wonderful writing.  Impossible to read for more than 15-20 minutes at a time because of the mind-twisting details, this is a wonderful journey into the distant historical past as well as a demonstration of what the human mind is capable of conjuring and conveying.

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