In Invisible Cities, the Venetian merchant and traveler Marco Polo narrates to Kublai Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century, accounts of the cities that he has visited on his travels. The cities that Polo describes are fantastical. There is Octavia, the spider-web city, built over a void between two steep mountains and bound to the two crests with ropes and chains; Baucius, a city built on slender stilts that rise into the clouds; Leonia, a city that refashions itself every day; Zemrude, where the mood of the beholder gives the city its form. The 50 odd cities that Calvino describes are unique in their own way, and yet one finds in them echoes of a modern city or town observed from varying viewpoints. These cities exist on the map of one’s mind, composed of thought and conveyed through Calvino’s poetic and evocative prose.

One of the cities that Polo describes is the city of Valdrada, built on the shores of a lake.

the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat.

In each of their actions, the inhabitants of Valdrada are mindful of how it will appear in the reflected city.

At times the mirror increases a thing’s value, at times denies it. Not everything that seems valuable above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored

The figurative aspect of Polo’s fantastical cities are hard to miss.

The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them

Kublai Khan, at times, is skeptical of Marco Polo’s accounts, and at other times, adds to them by describing a city that he dreamed of and asks Polo if he had been to such a city. In one of their exchanges, the Khan asks Polo why, of all the cities that Polo has described, he has never described his hometown Venice? To this, Polo responds,”Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice”. He refuses to describe Venice.

“Memory’s descriptions, 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”

One distinctive feature of Calvino’s writing style in this book is his frequent use of alliterations – the spurls, the splashes, and the sponges’ suds; gestures, grimaces, glances; inarticulate informer; slender stilts; pistachio nuts and poppy seeds – that give his prose the likeness of poetry. It is easy to forget that this book is a translation by William Weaver from the Italian.

Whether Marco Polo visited China and met with the Kublai Khan is still a matter of debate. Calvino’s book makes no attempt to portray the narrative as a real encounter. There is no storyline in the book. Most of the book is a description of imagined cities, with interludes of conversations between Polo and Khan. Calvino manages to ignore almost all of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 basics of creative writing and yet delivers a book that is captivating. It stands at the intersection of prose and poetry; Polo’s description of the cities are infused with poetic beauty rendered in beautiful prose. This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the book. Like poetry, Invisible Cities is enjoyed best when read at a leisurely pace.