Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Wednesday 18th October § Leave a comment

A while ago I made a quite promise to myself to review a few books and now that I’ve actually started reading books on architecture again I’m running out of excuses. For me, I hope it’s a way to force me into thinking through what I’m reading. So here is the first of what I hope will be a series:

Invisible Cities
by Italo Calvino
translation from the Italian by William Weaver

This book is weird. No ‘weird’ doesn’t do it justice. It’s set up as a series of discussions between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which Marco Polo describes a series of cities that he has passed through on his travels. You quickly come to realise that what he’s talking about are not infact real cities but different ways of thinking about cities, alternate interperetations of the same city, philosophies, moral judgments or whatever you want to make of them. The writing is lyrical. Every sentence is beautifully crafted. Every word conveys a meaning. It pulls you along through these brief visions and at such a pace that I found I had to consciously slow myself down in order to have time to properly absorb the theories that Calvino is exploring. Whilst reading this book, I could see that Calvino was exploring some deeper issue but often felt that I was missing the point of the scenarios; leaving me with a sinking feeling of stupidity. Sometimes I just wanted to be told what to think, but that’s not how this book works.

As a sub-plot to this list of imaginary cities and their increasingly ridiculous names, we have the character of Kublai Khan. Following his successful invasion into China he is struck by a sudden doubt. He sees cracks in his empire. And he scours Marco Polo’s stories for a solution to this creeping disease. My interpretation lead me to read the Great Khan’s empire as synonymous with our society.

This throws up the only slight weakness of the book. What you take away from the book is largely a matter of interpretation. So much of this book relies on interpretation, on your reading between the lines of each situation. But then I think, maybe that’s the whole point. This book points you in certain directions. Made me think things that I would never have thought of independently. It highlights so many different queries and then leaves you to make up your own ideas from what you’ve read. Not just essential reading for anyone with an interest in architecture or the life of cities, but I would also recommend this as a good read for anyone who isn’t afraid of a bit of thinking along the way.

5/5 Stars

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

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