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Italo Calvino: Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities)

This is the book that brought Calvino international fame and is often considered his greatest work. I would certainly agree that, if it is not his greatest work, it is certainly one of them. It seems to have been very much influenced by Dino Buzzati‘s Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppe), with its images of strange, unreal desert cities. The framework is quite simple. Marco Polo had been travelling around the Kublai Khan’s empire and has now returned to report back to the Kublai Khan on what he has seen. Specifically he reports on the various cities he has visited. Each description of each city is very short – often no more than a page – but, more importantly what Marco Polo describes is not the physical city he has seen but the impression that that city has made on him. This, of course, confuses Kublai Khan (Ma le città visitate da Marco Polo erano sempre diverse da quelle pensate dall’imperatore. [But the cities visited by Marco Polo were always different from those imagined by the emperor.]) Each city is, of course, different and there is no connection between the different cities – no description of how they might relate to another city, no description of the journey between them. Each one stands on its own, either as a separate city or, more likely, a separate imagined city for, of course, these cities do not correspond to real cities that we know, though attempts have been made to relate them to a specific physical environment. You can take the stories as a parable on the forthcoming decline of the Kublai Khan’s empire or you can take them as short, beautifully poetic descriptions of imagined places or as something in between, perhaps a series of pleasing portraits which combine to form an idealised structure of cities or even an empire. However you read it, it remains one of Calvino’s best books and a thoroughly original work.

Publishing history

First published 1972 by Einaudi
First published in English 1974 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich