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British novelist, Jeanette Winterson, on the back cover of the Penguin edition of Invisible Cities by Italian novelist, Italo Calvino, calls it ‘the book I would choose as pillow and plate, alone on a desert island’. Book reviewers compete with each other to demonstrate their own literary skills when they write about Calvino. The Penguin edition of The Castle of Crossed Destinies includes a quote from a review in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘The marriage of the verbal and visual seems almost prodigious. It is as if sulphur and mercury had at last fused into gold.’ More simply and with greater insight, a reviewer in Time described Calvino as ‘one of those story-tellers who hold a mirror up to nature and then write about the mirror.’
Calvino’s first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, is about the experiences of a young boy who more or less accidentally finds himself taking part in the Italian resistance during the Second World War. In a preface to a revised edition published later, Calvino distanced himself from it. ‘I read it now not so much as one of my own works but rather as a book which arose anonymously out of the general climate of the time, from a moral tension that was in the air, and a literary tendency which epitomised our generation immediately after the Second World War.’
The only clue the book holds to Calvino’s later work is its picaresque form. All his novels are a variation on that form. The only difference in the earlier work is that the setting is real. Marcovaldo is a collection of short pieces describing the city as seen by one of its inhabitants, a poorly educated but observant peasant. ‘These stories,’ Calvino writes in a brief preface, ‘take place in an industrial city of northern Italy. The first in the series were written in the early 1950s and thus are set in a very poor Italy, the Italy of neo-realistic movies. The last stories date from the mid-60s, when the illusions of an economic boom flourished.’
In the first novel and the early stories, it is the point of view, not the narrative that matters, the mirror, not nature. In the later work there is no narrative to speak of and Italy, as a real place existing in the present, disappears, its place taken by other places invented by Calvino. The real world doesn’t exist. Or rather, it exists only in the mirror, the mirror of ‘neo-realistic movies’ or of ‘illusions of an economic boom’.
Real lives, individual lives that start with birth and end with death, play no part in Calvino’s later work. There is no narrative, no continuous time, no characters for the reader to identify with, no past, no future, only a present which is out of time. All there is, as there must be, is a literary device of some kind to act as a framework.
The device Calvino uses in Invisible Cities is borrowed from The Thousand and One Nights. Instead of Scheherezade and Shahryar we have Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, instead of stories we have descriptions of the cities Marco Polo has visited – or rather, as it turns out, made up.
The book consists of about fifty descriptions of imagined cities, each about a page in length, interspersed with conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Time passes only in those conversations, which is where the narrative development takes place as Kublai Khan slowly comes to realise what Marco Polo’s tales represent. His questioning of the explorer gradually becomes more pointed until, at the end, he opens his great atlas, which ‘contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded’, and says, ‘You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these futures the favouring winds are driving us’.
‘For these ports,’ Marco Polo replies, ‘I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passers-by meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.’
The almost impossibility of communicating and interpreting individual experience is also what The Castle of Crossed Destinies is about. The stories in this novel are told by strangers who, being deaf and dumb, can tell them only by laying out tarot cards and making gestures.
‘The handsome youth made a gesture, as if to demand our full attention, and then began his silent tale, arranging three cards in a row on the table: the King of Coins, the Ten of Coins and the Nine of Clubs. The mournful expression with which he set down the first of these cards, and the joyous look with which he showed the next one, seemed to want to tell us that, his father having died – the King of Coins represented a slightly older personage than the others, with a mature and prosperous appearance – he had come into possession of a considerable fortune and had immediately set forth on his travels.’
The stories continue, one after another, the narrator sometimes sure that he understands, sometimes baffled, until, in the midst of an interpretation based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the tarot Sun and World cards laid on the table, he makes a joke and calls it a day.
‘His chariot advances at the head of the English army, and finally Macbeth is forced to say: I ‘gin to be aweary of The Sun, and wish the syntax o’ The World were now undone, that the playing cards were shuffled, the folios’ pages, the mirror-shards of the disaster.’
Invisible Cities comes to a more hopeful conclusion. The Khan, looking at his atlas and seeing maps of ‘the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions’, wonders where our travels through his empire might be leading us. ‘It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.’ Marco Polo offers two alternatives. ‘The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
It is as if, after writing at length about the mirror, which is not an easy read, he writes finally and briefly about nature, which is. This gentle, human, sympathetic ending comes as a surprise. But why? He was a child of the very poor Italy of the 1950s, he watched those neo-realist movies, he was part of the literary tendency of his time and decided to replace it with something else. But in the end what Calvino says is what Rossellini and De Sica were saying. Some things have changed, but the moral tension hasn’t gone away.