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It’s hard to put a label on this surreal Calvino masterpiece. Is it prose? Poetry? A novella? A travel guide maybe? The story is classified as a fictional novel but the verbiage and content prove that this is more than just that. Although Marco Polo and Kublai Khan existed as historical figures, Invisible cites is not a work of non-fiction and Calvino isn’t interested in telling us about the history of the characters. The story gives life to these people who once walked the same earth as we now do, and provides insight on both Polo and The Khan’s different yet equally as colorful personalities they are given by Calvino.
Calvino’s story tells the tales of Marco Polo’s adventures throughout the lands that are ruled by Kublai Khan. The Khan calls upon Marco Polo in order to tell him about the lands that he rules, for he is the king and must remain in his keep.
Because of a language barrier, Polo and the Khan communicate first by using objects and signals. Polo “expressed himself only by drawing objects from his baggage-drums, salt fish, necklaces of wart hogs’ teeth—and pointing to them with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay of the jackal, the hoot of the owl” (38). Eventually they become fluent in one another’s languages, but Polo and the Khan still choose to communicate based on this method because they find it both relaxing and immensely satisfying, it’s almost even therapeutic for them.
Marco Polo says “it is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear” (135).
Calvino uses language to create pictures in the reader’s head of the most amazing detailed places without actually managing to describe the place itself. For example, he talks about the city of Isidora, “A city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors.” In the city of Isidora, “desires are already memories.” (8) Although Calvino doesn’t describe the contents or the architecture of the city, his description of the city leaves the reader with a clear picture in their head of what Isidora truly is like.
At first, it’s a little difficult for the reader to sense the pattern of the story. It is unlike your average novel with a conflict, climax, and resolution. But, Invisible Cities does have a clear and organized layout. Polo’s accounts of the different cities are organized in to nine separate sections. Calvino doesn’t reject the traditional approach of storytelling in terms of escalating conflict and surprise, but he has written them nontraditionally which helps to bring this already animated book to life.
Invisible Cities continuously calls the reader’s attention to the destructive effects of time and the uncertainty of the future for the empire the Khan rules. The book itself is extremely formal. Each city is imagined and each city is conceptual. Every interaction between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo is a thought experiment. Calvino’s writing is nothing short of masterful, and Invisible Cities is an especially engaging story.
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