Italo Calvino

Invisible Cities

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Invisible Cities Summary

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Invisible Cities is a novel by Italian author Italo Calvino, published in 1972. Major themes of this work are imagination and perception, truth and deception, and the inevitable passage of time–and therefore, inevitable decay. The story begins with Kublai Khan, a famed 13th century ruler of the Mongol empire, who senses that the end of his empire is nigh. He sends word that he’s seeking news and receives a response from Marco Polo, a similarly famed Venetian explorer and merchant. In writing Polo’s response, Calvino weaves in the themes of imagination and perception, as well as truth and deception because as Polo describes all the cities he visits in Kublai Khan’s name, Khan can’t be certain whether the stories are fictional or true. By the end of Polo’s tales about hidden cities, trading cities, cities of the dead and cities of the sky, Khan realizes that Polo is writing about one city. While Khan can’t be sure that Polo is telling him the truth, the story enchants him.

Each new story is about a city in Khan’s empire, but Polo tells the tales in such a way that the emperor is continually enthralled by the unique perceptions each story offers. The cities change from being settings to becoming characters—living, breathing characters, often described as though they are women. In addition to these tales, Polo writes poetry about the cities in his stories. Despite the fact that Khan and Polo are from different homelands and speak different native languages, they can imagine what the other will answer to a question, and so are able to conceive whole conversations. Khan worries that his empire has gotten so vast that it will collapse, and by describing the various smaller parts, Polo tries to convince Khan that his empire is, in fact, whole. Additionally, the tone of Polo’s stories match Kublai Khan’s moods. He capably appeases an angry emperor, and when Khan is arrogant, Polo uses his tales to warn against overconfidence. Each story has at its heart one main feature of the cities: people, location, or architecture. Polo uses those features to characterize the cities. He uses evocative and existential language that becomes more and more surreal as his conversations with Kublai Khan continue. Polo is building toward an eventual theme with his stories that Khan—and the reader—doesn’t easily see because the stories are so poetic and beautiful. That theme, of course, is the inevitable passage of time and decay.

Throughout Invisible Cities, Polo tells stories to the emperor about 55 cities. The theme of imagination is used throughout the novel, because while Polo initiates the imaginative process, the emperor contributes equally. As much as Polo can use language to describe what he perceives about each city, Kublai Khan must also put his imagination to use in order to truly experience those tales for himself. There is a meta message here about the role of storytelling and the relationship of the author to a reader. The author writes a tale, which the reader must then implant into his or her own imagination to bring the settings and characters to life. Kublai Khan cannot be certain whether Marco Polo is telling him the truth or whether he’s trying to deceive him with his stories of the cities. In the end, it doesn’t really matter to the emperor. Even though initially he was overwrought with concern for the fate of his empire. Polo paints such a vivid picture of the cities and peoples it encompasses that Khan is able to bring it to life even if it is failing. There’s a broader message related to this theme too—storytelling has the ability to immortalize that which decays. An exchange in which Kublai Khan reveals that he doesn’t think the cities are real at all points to another meaning for this theme, which is that without deception, one cannot detect the truth. Marco Polo compares this to light and darkness—how can one find the darkness without knowing where the light shines?

As Kublai Khan ages, so too does his empire weaken. He knows this, but allows Polo to whisk him away to an imagined cityscape where the decay is irrelevant, because the people who live there have found a path to innovation. The message here is that all living things must come to an end. Just as the emperor will die, so too must his empire crumble. But as his people look explore and innovate–as they look to the future–they are given new life. Kublai Khan takes comfort in Polo’s stories because they both acknowledge the inevitability of the passage of time and therefore of death, while also providing hope for the future beyond that. Invisible Cities calls upon Marco Polo’s travel diary, The Travels of Marco Polo, a primary text from 13th century, which details many of the cities he visited in Khan’s empire. Those cities appear in Calvino’s novel. The novel is structured with nine chapters; each chapter is a closed narrative frame with conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, with Polo’s stories in the middle. Invisible Cities was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1975.