A Review of “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

Oh, the city, city… the endless sea…
Fun and games on top, mud and filth beneath –
A beauty who smiles on the surface;
The mistress who wouldn’t let you go…

So wrote one of our poets.

You live in the city: and slowly, the city starts living in you. It takes on a life of its own in your mind. Once the city gets to you, it won’t let you go. (I speak from personal experience. I spent twelve eventful years of my life in Cochin, and I carry that city with me, even here in the Middle East.)


Italo Calvino has immortalised the city in this slim volume of fantastical tales, told by Marco Polo to Kubilai Khan. Stories which may be distorted memories, fanciful imaginings or outright lies (Polo was not exactly truthful). There is no story as such. Vignettes of imaginary cities are listed, one after the other, in haphazard fashion, interspersed with conversations between the Khan and Polo. The pieces are absurd and surreal – one feels that if this book would have been illustrated, only Salvador Dali could have been entrusted with the task.

There are eleven “themes”, of a sort:

  1. Cities and Memory
  2. Cities and Desire
  3. Cities and Signs
  4. Thin Cities
  5. Trading Cities
  6. Cities and Eyes
  7. Cities and Names
  8. Cities and the Dead
  9. Cities and the Sky
  10. Continuous Cities
  11. Hidden Cities

…And five sketches under each, so there is a sort of mathematical precision. The themes are all jumbled together with no semblance of order. (After finishing the book, I made a discovery – one can cover the descriptions of the cities theme-wise, instead of sequentially, and get a totally different take on the book.)


Each of these vignettes can be analysed in depth, and dissected using Freudian psychoanalysis or Jungian metaphysics: but I will not attempt to do so. It would be spoiling the beauty of the narrative. Each reader can find his or her own meaning in these cities – and most likely, it would be the city buried deep in their psyche which would be talking to them.


So my friends, my only request to you is to come and visit these cities. You won’t be disappointed.



2 comments on “A Review of “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

  1. What a splendid account. You make me think I have to reread it. Calvino is one of the few authors whose books I religiously keep on the shelves, even when there isn’t enough space, but I’m apprehensive that if I revisit him I will spoil the memories of my first encounters with him.

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