Invisible Cities

I’ve been reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for the last few weeks, and I’m absolutely charmed.

The frame is Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan about cities he’s encountered in his travels. The story is a series of vignettes of imagined places, each with a twist or a thought to share. Some examples.

Eutropia is a city made of a hundred cities, only one of which is occupied at any given time. People live their lives until they’re consumed by ennui, at which point everybody moves to another city and swaps lives—jobs, spouses and relatives, interests and the city goes on as before just with new people playing the roles.

Marco Polo’s concluding thought is that though Eutropia is a city that changes constantly, strangely it remains the same. Though the people change, the roles don’t because nobody sticks with them through the frustration long enough to make them in to something new.

The city of Maurilia is a modern, developed metropolis, but has a nostalgia for its past. But it’s more complex than that: if you had seen it in the past, you wouldn’t see it as beautiful and provincial, merely as dirty and unpleasant—it’s only from the vantage point of modernity that the past seems to glow.

He goes on to say:

Sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another … the old post cards do not depict Maurilla as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilla

The book meditates on change, life, and death in a way that pokes rather than argues. I find myself coming back to re-read an individual city and connecting it in some new way with the world I inhabit. I’d suggest reading a few cities at a time, and let them mull for a day or two.

Along similar lines: Sum by David Eagleman, and the BLDGBLOG book.