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Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities

Author: Italo Calvino
Rating: 7/10
Last Read: May 2016

Quick Summary: A collection of short "stories" told by  Marco Polo about cities he has visited.  These are poetic, fantastical descriptions of unreal places, usually highlighting an individual aspect of life in a city.

The book is interesting, though it took me quite a while to get into it - there's no easing you into the strangeness that you will encounter.

This is definitely a book you can revisit and appreciate further, I think.

My Highlights

In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. --loc 67

As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. --loc 107

You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are. --loc 122

The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: --loc 125

But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, Zora has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her. --loc 150

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts. --loc 163

The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind. --loc 168

Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms. --loc 203

the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; --loc 222

At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you?” or rather, “Does your journey take place only in the past?” --loc 225

traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places. --loc 230

And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” --loc 240

It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one. --loc 253

It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it. --loc 285

“Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.” --loc 368

In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping. --loc 392

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” --loc 639

“You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.” --loc 695

The Great Khan tried to concentrate on the game: but now it was the game’s reason that eluded him. The end of every game is a gain or a loss: but of what? What were the real stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner’s hand, nothingness remains: a black square, or a white one. By disembodying bis conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood. --loc 964

“I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. --loc 987

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.” --loc 1012

Cities have no name for me: they are places without leaves, separating one pasture from another, and where the goats are frightened at street corners and scatter. The dog and I run to keep the flock together.” --loc 1134

“The places have mingled,” the goatherd said. “Cecilia is everywhere. Here, once upon a time, there must have been the Meadow of the Low Sage. My goats recognize the grass on the traffic island.” --loc 1145

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. 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 recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” --loc 1243

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