What We’re Reading This Week… Invisible Cities










“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

Invisible Cities is a novel in which a fictionalised Marco Polo outlines to the Great Kublai Khan all of the cities he has ever seen. The book is a short one, split up into two- and three-page chapters, in which Marco Polo describes a city as he experienced it. Most cities are fictional, but some may be real. So, for example, a place like Beersheba, a city in Israel, Polo describes the handed-down belief that, “suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one.”

As you can probably tell already, a lot of the subjects in this book operate on metaphor and symbolism. The strength of the story lies in the interludes that occur between Polo’s descriptions — the italicised entries in which the narrator recounts the intimate discussions between Polo and the Khan that deal with Polo’s travels. For example,

Kublai: To me this conjecture does not seem to suit our purposes. Without them we could never remain here swaying, cocooned in our hammocks.
Polo: Then the hypothesis must be rejected. So the other hypothesis is true: they exist and we do not.
Kublai: But we have proved that if we were here, we would not be.
Polo: And here, in fact, we are.

This book, as described by a friend of ours who read it, is “like eating candy” — each chapter is a short, sweet journey into another world, and all the journeys when read at once tend to blend into each other.

Invisible Cities has been lauded as “an exquisite work” — Gore Vidal, in the New York Review of Books, described it as “perhaps the most beautiful work … the artist seems to have made peace with the tension between man’s ideas of the many and of the one.”

Perhaps the best thing to do with a novel like this is to curl up with it on a rainy day and transport yourself to places you have always wanted to see, and fictional places that could not exist anywhere but in a good book.

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