“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvelous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take.
Because of the length of this book (148 pages), it is deceptively easy to read quickly through the descriptions of the cities that Marco Polo creates for Kublai Khan. At first, because Marco cannot speak the language, the cities are described using his hands, jumps, shouts, facial expressions, which he is not sure Kublai Khan actually understands – and he does not. So while one paints images of fantastical cities, the other imagines the cities as he perceives Marco to be describing. And, once the two do find a common language to speak in, they realize that the magic of the cities somehow diminish … because the language does not quite capture the essence of the city.
I very much enjoyed the relationship, in particular, between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Each man is wise in their own way, and neither is trying to impose their particular views on the other. Kublai Khan is very aware that the cities Marco Polo describes are not real, but continues to listen because he sees his own empire – what it is, can be, and will never be – in the invisible cities that Marco Polo describes.
In this way, the book asks us to wonder … what is a city? What gives its character? Why do we remember some aspects, and not others? Do we ‘create’ images of what our cities mean to us, regardless of what is plainly in front of us?
This was an intriguing read … one that has got me thinking, and thinking, and re-assessing how I view my favorite cities.