One of the many extraordinary works by Italian writer Italo Calvino. Framed as a conversation between Marco Polo and Kubli Khan it is a collection of short stories about fantastic cities. From a city suspended high above the earth by three mountains, to a city so sprawled it has no beginning or end each story points to a small reality of all cities. Each description is no more than a couple of pages, so it is an easy book to read and set down (perfect for a commute, or lunch break reading). I would recommend it highly to anyone.

I once met a Lebanese man who used to talk in Spanish, he told me of his happier days and the sad ones, of discoveries and losses, He used to do marketing for a big business and so he used to frequent many cities for work. The most he told me of his visits was of his trips to a faraway land, to the city of Naemabad.

"To a visitor who stays in Naemabad only for one day", he said like he's giving away an ancient wisdom, "the city has only a part of it to show. You can never understand that city in one day. Can never see it in one day."

My friend told me of his numerous visits, in all of whom the city came out to him like a young dynamic city with business on its mind and youth spread around like a riot.

"But one day", he said with a low voice, "I visited this city for leisure, on vacation, to be an observer rather than a player, to spend one Sunday in a young city, and I was surprised beyong belief, as soon as I reached the city. I saw old people, old and feeble people all around. There was not a single soul around who was under 50. I felt like a black crow among the swans. They were everywhere, on buses, in shops, walking on the roadside and I wondered if I've reached the wrong city. The city seemed to have aged overnight"

"But it was the right city, city of Naemabad ... I reckoned that it is a city which changes its age by the days of week."

To a visitor who reaches this city on a weekday, when people are out working in offices and shops and schools. The city strikes out as young and dynamic, where everyone is in hurry to be someplace and everyone is energetically running around. The old age, fear of death and loneliness seem to have no place in this city.

But to a visitor who reaches Naemabad on a day of vacation, the city belongs to the old and the aged. Everyplace you look, there are old people. Sitting on benches under trees looking nowhere in particular, taking walks on sidewalks, riding the buses, shopping in the grocery stores.

"To this day I wonder if there are more ages to a city, more faces, more shades to show in different weathers, in different times. For no one can see every face of a city on one day. Like you can not truly judge a man in one meeting ... Do cities have a childhood? Are they sometimes ashamed of their dwellers? Are they proud?..."

"Invisible Cities" is the English translation of "Le citta invisibili", written by Italo Calvino. It was published in Italian in 1972 and in English in 1974. Its framing device is a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, although this is not presented at all in a historical and realistic context. Instead, Marco Polo narrates descriptions of imaginary, fantastic cities he has visited. These cities are not described as having normal geography or society, but are instead dream cities full of inversion, reflections and secrets. Whether these descriptions are full of topical political and literary allusions is something I couldn't tell: I don't know enough about Italian society to know whether Calvino was making a specific commentary or whether this is, as seems to be, merely surreal flights of fancy.

While I found this book interesting reading, I have to admit that I can't really make out what it is about. Which, perhaps, is the point.

Imaginary Cities are Invisible

When one reaches a city

Some of the (un)conscious impressions

are filtered gradually for selective memory.

A city may stimulate all sorts of desires,

and one pauses at a small café when thirsty.

The city may feature sculpture, and signboards

concerning its attributes, directions, suggestions, availability,

Or a city, devoid of landmarks & guideposts, appears confusing; yet,

along the Yellowstone River, it's easy to find the motels & bars of Miles City.

APPROXIMATELY sixteen years ago J. Winterson published a brief review of the Weaver translation of Italo Calvino’s Le Città Invisibili, in which she stated that in the novel’s “Chloe” sketch (Trading Cities 2) “Calvino was writing about Venice – all the Venices collapsed, folded, or vanished behind the tourist façade.” … Fair enough as a personal interpretation, I suppose, although the description of Chloe makes no mention of canals. During the intervening years, a problem has arisen which is very likely due to careless mis-reading of the text. Winterson’s statement has been expanded through paraphrasing, to the extent that the Wikipedia webpage for Invisible Cities says all 55 sketches are disguised descriptions of Venice, and the back cover blurb of the Vintage paperback repeats this unelaborated claim which readers may accept erroneously as accurate. I find the comment by ‘Ceos’ (above at the top of this node, from the year before Winterson’s review), that each sketch “points to a small reality of all cities,” is more preferable, more akin to my own reading of this valuable Calvino contribution to the humanities.

TEXTUAL INCONSISTENCIES are easily located, and some run counter to Winterson’s assertion. Calvino’s italicized commentaries beginning and closing each chapter of sketches, purportedly made by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan), insist that Polo “describes the cities visited on his expeditions” (p.5), and reports to Khan in his summer capital (at a place known to Mongols as Xanadu) upon “returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him” (p.18). Clearly, the implication is that Polo represents emblematically and describes by gestures, pantomime, and brief vignettes the cities along the Silk Road route by which he had traveled to reach the Orient, as well as Chinese cities included at that time in the Mongol empire to which Khan had sent him to gather information. Venezia was beyond the extensive Mongol empire.

True, Calvino included “lions” in a short list of “signs” taking form as statues and shields (p.11), in the sketch concerning the city he called Tamara, and this seems to be a deliberate reference to Venice. (A detailed account of how Venice adopted the lion as an emblem of its power can be found, by the way, in Venice: Lion City by Garry Wills, particularly in pages 27 through 29.) Yet, the lion reference fits into Calvino’s contention made in various ways that past experiences, memories, desires, and so forth, influence one’s perceptions of cities visited while traveling.

A Calvino sketch from the novel that is immediately appealing in this context concerns Despina (p.14), in which a camel driver approaching from the desert “thinks of a ship,” whereas a sailor arriving by sea is said to perceive the port city’s outline on the horizon “as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags of candied fruit ….” One of Calvino’s most concise statements about this phenomenon is also worth quoting.

Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places (p.24).

What are we to do with all the anachronisms – e.g., “radar antennae” (p.14) & “skyscraper,” “dirigible,” “underground train” (p.16), "motorcyclists" (p.55)? Their presence is not accidental. Where are the sketches of Acre, Samarra, Baghdad, Kashgar and other cities of the Mongol empire? Calvino did not leave a hint regarding why Polo has given fabricated names to all the cities portrayed as sketches – these textual facts themselves may be useful pointers. It could be time to develop an alternative analysis of the “invisible” aspect more consistently with the entire text of Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

IMAGINARY CITIES ARE INVISIBLE. Consider hypothetically ... if you were telling me in our home city an anecdote with its remembered details about another city you visited last spring, you would no longer be there! The actual city is invisible to both of us, and we have to imagine it to speak of it (in your case) or to have a conscious impression of what you're reporting about the city (in my situation as listener). In any event, verbal accounts are merely approximations of the actual, necessarily abbreviated ... sometimes mis-leading/mis-construed.

Several Analytical Considerations

• Strong implication that Khan and Polo frequently smoke opium in conjunction with their conversations at Xanadu. Vide p.23: “They were silent, their eyes half-closed, reclining on cushions, swaying in hammocks, smoking long amber pipes;” also, p.51’s image of the Khan: “lips clenched on the pipe’s amber stem.”

• Polo’s awareness of Khan’s variable moods, sometimes contentious and other times exuberantly euphoric. Vide p.51.

• Khan begins modifying Polo’s sketches and telling his own oral, imagined sketches of cities which he requests Polo please verify. Vide p.37-38: “With cities, it is as with dreams … even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.” Also, p.47: Khan’s sharing a somber dream scene of departure in a shaded harbor, apparently without realizing Death is its core; “Set out, explore every coast, and seek this city; then come back and tell me if my dream corresponds to reality;” and Polo’s response, “Sooner or later I shall set sail from that dock, but I shall not come back to tell you about it – the city exists and it has a simple secret: it knows only departures, not returns.”

• With respect to lingual communication, various intimations of its invisibility, its ambiguities. Vide p.40-41: (Hypatian philosopher) “Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know;” (Polo) “There is no language without deceit.” Polo also says while ending a sketch in the next chapter (and because it seems antithetical, or tongue-in-cheek, this has a humorous edge to it), “Falsehood is never in words; it is in things” p.54.

Envoi: STALINGRAD March, 1943

It was nearly mid-morning when the train I was aboard finally pulled into the central station of this city and stopped its wobbly motion. (from my notes)… Climbed down among a crowd of passengers, mostly soldiers — whether reinforcements, or issued leave here, or enroute to the Don River front, I couldn’t determine — and went out with a flow of people onto an avenue which sloped gradually upwards.

The Russians had broken the siege of Stalingrad by the Axis armies during the first few days of February. The Luftwaffe’s air raids had been relentless — damage had been horrific — the battle for the city was fierce — hundreds of thousands on either side had died. In fact, control of the railway station (from which I stepped out into the city) had seesawed fourteen times between opponents the day the German forces had first attacked the city itself, back in September. I knew this going in. What I didn’t realize until shortly after arrival was that the civilian population had slowly starved during the siege.

Here’s how I learned about Stalingrad’s famine. (again from my notes made later the day I arrived in Stalingrad)… Passed a closed, seemingly heavy, doorway with a queue of folks stretching up the avenue. When I reached its tail end, I turned abruptly and joined the waiting line, whether for the hell of it or to have a rest break, I don’t remember. Maybe a bit of both motivations. Anyways, one of the handful of Russian words I knew (from the train journey) was rasptitsa, meaning this current seasonal transition when winter’s snow and ice thaws and it becomes quite muddy outdoors for several weeks. I tried to say that word and kicked a mound of slushy snow, which brought a chuckle from the babushka ahead of me. She quickly comprehended that I couldn’t converse in Russian, and via hand signals and smiles communicated that I should step ahead of her, i.e. behind a couple she must’ve known had a smattering of English.

They immediately made me understand by means of the male’s drawing of hands cutting a bread loaf in thirds, also extracting their ration cards from their coats, that this was a queue for food rations. That is, if there was any bread left when their turn at the door came up, communicated via a drawing of two empty hands held out by forearms!

Apparently, the female of the couple spoke French, and when she discovered I knew more of that language than Russian she chose to vent her anger en français. … Something about a “Harvest Victory;” by which Stalin had ordered the Commissars in August, before the Axis forces attacked, to relocate the railroad engines, railcars, fuel and cattle across the Volga, as well as the grain from the huge silo at Stalingrad port (Glantz & Jones, 2009). Significantly, he did not order that civilians be evacuated, thinking their presence would inspire the defending soldiers to hold their ground. “... Five months besieged,” she wailed, “and slow starvation eating only the gleanings of grain left in the bottom of the silo!”

She continued, “take this woman here, she used to have a large vegetable garden and raise a few geese and chickens by her cabin in Orlokov before the war. Her husband was part of a crew who fished for sturgeon and netted other fish in the lower Volga. He was shot dead. Her geese were taken by the military. She has no green vegetable seed, nor potatoes. How will we survive the summer?”

I stayed with these three people as we moved forward, talking casually, but it wasn’t too long before the queue was told to disperse because there was nothing left. They offered that I could come with them, and we hiked perhaps 3 km out to Olena’s (the babushka’s) cabin adjacent to a marsh, and had some weak tea in glasses. After dark, I lay down on the floor to rest. Olena moved from her seat and lay with me, raising her camisole for a few minutes of nipple nibbles by the samovar, which we both found comforting in a reminiscent sort of way. The next morning I decided to leave, to hike back into Stalingrad, and gave Olena the kopeks in my right pocket on my way out.

It was a miserable several days, hungry, and waiting for the next train to leave for Mariupol and Odesa; but I survived on radishes from an open-air market and several cups of tea here & there, and got the hell out of that war-ravaged zone, with its bloodthirsty, forelocked Cossacks roaming the streets. A confluence of dystopian currents is awash in the Volga along Stalingrad’s docks, and most of the city is starving. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, war is nothing but trouble for the innocent folks in its path.


  • Calvino, Italo. (1974). Invisible cities (tr. from It. by William Weaver). London: HBJ/Penguin/Random/Vintage.
  • Coleridge, Samuel T. "Kubla Khan," verse pub. in various versions c.1798-1816. For the text of the 1816 version in 56 lines (re: Xanadu), follow the internal link to the Kubla Khan node and scroll down to Red Omega's writeup pub. there Dec.22, 2009.
  • Wills, Garry. (2001). Venice: Lion city: the religion of empire. NY: Simon & Schuster.

    Follow-up Diversions
  • Bidart, Frank. (2015). "The fourth hour of the night" (12-part verse concerning Genghis Khan and his sons). Poetry, v.206, no. 2, 95-128.
  • Brodsky, Joseph. (1992). Watermark. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (I heartily recommend this text of 48 short chapters in which Brodsky gave his impressions of Venice. It may have been stimulated in part by Calvino's Invisible Cities.)

(Author's note: Sections written intermittently over the last nine months)

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