Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino


“In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo–Mongol emperor and Venetian traveler. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo diverts his host with stories of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. As Macro Polo unspools his tales, the emperor detects these fantastic places are more than they appear.” – blurb on the back of my copy.


I might be wrong, but I feel like this book has a pretty niche audience, but if you like philosophical reads with a layer of fiction over them, you might enjoy Invisible Cities. The bulk of it is prose poems about fanciful cities, and each prose poem has a sort of philosophical punchline. It’s about literal cities as much as it’s about human nature, objective vs subjective reality, and expectations versus actuality. 

The main beef I had with Invisible Cities is that it’s very male-gaze-y when gendered descriptions of people are involved at all (which isn’t really that frequent I suppose). Every woman mentioned is in a voyeuristic and/or objectifying context in a way that would make me hesitant to recommend this book to another woman without a disclaimer.

I read this book because it was chosen by someone in my book club. I probably won’t be keeping it in my personal library long-term.

Cover of Invisible Cities
Cover of Invisible Cities


I enjoyed Invisible Cities most in the first third or so of the book. Past that point it started feeling repetitive and formulaic to me–here’s a description of a made-up city with an unreal physical characteristic, e.g. being entirely on stilts high in the air or being copied in some shadow realm. Here’s a description of how there’s actually two versions of the city or of the people in it; the version that is easily perceptible and the version that is more true but harder to see for whatever reason. Here’s why the weird physical characteristic of the city is appropriate for whatever aspect of human nature is revealed in the hidden version of the city. 

The Kublai / Marco dialogues in the intervening sections repeated their own set of topics like individual versus average or conglomerate (e.g. is it easier to get at what makes a city a city by trying to accurately describe an individual city or by trying to generalize between cities?) and memory versus experience.

I felt like I had gotten the point well before the end of the book. I do think this book would be fun to analyze in an academic setting, though, as there are so many ways you could group the passages (e.g. by their given labels like ‘Cities and Memory,’ by their positioning in the book, or by what kinds of cities they describe). I don’t have the motivation to do that kind of analysis in my free time, though. I guess what I’m trying to express is that I feel like the low-effort, casual-read meaning or ‘point’ of the book can be grasped long before you reach the end; I think there’s a lot of layers in there to be explored, but for high effort. I don’t know if there are many medium-effort returns to be had.

Another thought I had is that it might be fun to use the entries in this book as worldbuilding inspiration for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

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