Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

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Photo courtesy of LISEL JANE ASHLOCK ILLUSTRATION  ©2013 LISEL JANE ASHLOCK //  LISEL.ASHLOCK@GMAIL.COM

sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves

For the past two years, I have become obsessed with the mythologies of cities. Each municipality that I’ve spent time in—whether it’s an ancient Etruscan citadel on top of a mountain or a Thai party town on an island whose population is mostly tourists or a numbing Japanese megalopolis that gobbles up all the formerly independent towns it touches or a northern prairie centre feeling the growing pains of a hasty adolescence—has its own character, its own little folk histories and eccentricities. Each one of them seeps into my own history and identity, weaving my fabric and staining it a dizzying kaleidoscopic tie-dye.

I read an article some time ago which posited that, in our increasingly urbanized and globalized world, people will soon come to define their citizenship less in reference to the countries that they live in, and more by the cities that they call home. Where national stereotypes now seem laughably inaccurate and dangerously offensive to our modern sensibilities, the distinct characters of cities remain firmly entrenched in our consciousnesses. Paris is romantic. Bangkok is exotic. Toronto is corporate. Montreal is artsy. Edmonton is cold. We love to love our civic stereotypes, even as the contrarians among us love to push back against them.

I spent the last fifteen months writing the first draft of a novel set in Edmonton, deeply interested in Edmonton’s civic mythology and urban character. Not just the historical personalities and events from which the stories are born, but the fictions about Edmonton, the words and tales which get repeated over and over and which slowly coalesce into a single glimmering image of a city. Like the narratives we repeat about ourselves which accrete into our identities, a city’s personality is derived from the layers and layers of stories we drape over it like sticky cobweb strands.

So, when I found Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities whilst browsing the shelves of the Strathcona library yesterday afternoon, I was immediately excited to devour it. Structured as a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the Venetian traveller spins tales of the cities he has visited at the melancholy Mongol emperor’s request. I enjoyed having a guiding principle to structure the book, but for me this conceit was far less interesting than the tales themselves. Each one describes a unique city, enumerating its fantastical attributes whether they are feats of physical architecture or peculiarities of custom or mood. Each one is a short meditation on some aspect of urban life and civic identity—whether it’s how cities change, how citizens live together and interact, how cities deal with their waste or their dead, or how we talk about the city and construct or deconstruct its reputation.

I loved visiting Calvino’s dozens of chimerical cities. I loved Sophronia, the grey bland workaday half-city that packs up and roves around to all the circus half-cities that remain anchored in place. I loved Fedora, which preserves in crystal globes the models of every possible city it could have become had it chosen a different path. I loved Armilla, a city with no walls or floors or ceilings, only pipes and taps and fountains and sinks and bathtubs whose people have abandoned it to naiads and nymphs.

I loved Eutropia, the network of a dozen empty cities whose population moves between each one periodically and exchanges jobs and relationships to stave off boredom. I loved Aglaura, whose reputation has so eclipsed its lived reality that “the city that they speak of has much of what is needed to exist, whereas the city that exists on its site, exists less.” I loved Melania, whose citizens are only acting out the same scenes over and over, taking turns at various roles and characters.

I loved Clarice, which died and was reborn several times and now sits proudly yet uncertainly in the ruins of itself. I loved Leonia, whose people insisted upon novelty because they loved not new things but the act of throwing away old things, and so found themselves surrounded by mountains of waste. I loved Irene, which can only be seen from a distance and speculated upon by travellers yearning to reach the source of its sweet music.

I loved Thekla, so afraid of its own destruction that it never ceased its construction, never dismantled the scaffolding which covers the whole city, obscuring other scaffolding. I loved Olinda, a concentric city which grows like the rings of an inverse-tree, with the new town at its core and the old city banished to its outskirts. I loved Theodora, a city driven mad with its lust to exterminate all insects, rats, and pests.

I could describe the dozens of other mirage cities that Calvino conjures, each one as lovingly intricate and bizarre as the first. But instead I’ll leave you with a piece of advice, prospective reader: read this book aloud. The poetical quality of Calvino’s writing (and William Weaver’s translation) makes it hard to hold each sentence in your mind and appreciate its full richness as a merely visual experience. These are words which are meant to be heard, which are meant to be felt vibrating through your chest and the bones of your skull. Read them aloud to yourself or locked in your lover’s arms. Escape to some invisible cities, and dream about the way you could tell your own city’s story with such eloquence.

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