In a certain low-lying town, where the sky is tall enough to accommodate stacked libraries of cloud, a young man reads of Invisible Cities. Dawn breaks, caramel and pearl, as it does in old stories.
The town is built on a hill upon which it is only possible to think downwards.
At the top of the hill there is a church and a watchtower. All roads lead away, down the hill. The faithful direct their prayers down, like rolling coins in a gutter. The old watchtower now offers free entry: visitors like to see the sky reflected darkly in the still pool at the bottom of the hill, but they never look up.
By the pool is a cinema. Filmgoers, who find the town mysteriously altered at the end of the evening, as if it has exhaled, as if something solid in it has been swallowed, are always surprised to find the hill is still there.
Map-makers dislike the hill for its shock of contours, consider it an obvious spillage in an otherwise perfectly clean cream sea. Architects conceive of the hill hollowed out, dim catacombs wreathing towards high vaulted caverns.
The young man dreams of erosion, rivers breaking their banks, new tributaries carving through old rock, a black weight of water running down a hill.
A brief review:
I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities tonight – of which the above is my poor imitation. It was short enough to finish in a couple of hours but totally fascinating. It consists of a series of fantastic lyrical visions related by Marco Polo to Kublai Kahn: a city suspended between two steep mountains; another absurdly built on stilts in the middle of a desert; a city without walls or ceilings or floors but only water pipes where houses should be.
It’s written wonderfully, and reminded me of the screwy geomtrical tricksiness of an Escher, as well as those Magritte meta-paintings in which ‘reality’ is doubled and tampered with and parodied. I read it as a virtuoso meditation upon language and its unreliableness: each of the ‘visions’, which function almost as discrete prose poems, shimmers somewhere between allegory and phantasma, embodying the tension between sign and signified. Each city is an attempt to frame the blank spaces between writer and reader, to invent an architecture of language.
Calvino explores the stratification of meaning; the process by which language buries itself under layers of allusion, wild connotation and idiosyncratic interpretation. It’s incredibly hard to quote meaningfully to demonstrate the overall effect of this, which I suppose demonstrates his point – each word, each sentence depends upon another, each is integral to the stability of the structure. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering, and a remarkable book.