Invisible Cities

This old 1972 Italian book by Italo Calvino has quite a number of interesting set-pieces, that could definitely spur a Traveller adventure.

The book itself is I think fairly described by a reviewer, below:

Describing Invisible Cities is difficult as it doesn’t really have much of a plot or characters. The novel consists of portrayals of a series of disconnected scenes, a sort of travel journal but without characters or actions. The narrative is mostly from Marco Polo’s point of view, with some third person narration involving Polo’s sole audience Kublai Khan in a hypothetical series of meetings having taken place centuries ago. Nearly every scene describes a city that Polo visited, and the cities are all as different from each other as Jekyll and Hyde are.

The main appreciation I gained of Calvino while reading this was of his profound imagination in creating these settings as well as of his ability to convey a great deal of information about each unique setting in only two or three pages. You could almost say he paints scenes rather than simply describes them.

This type of passive novel isn’t for everyone and truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have been much of a fan myself if it’d been much longer than the 165 pages it is. Kind of like visiting a museum for a few hours: At some point I’ve had my fill and now want to go see or do something involving a bit more activity!

It’s quite good in English, but I bet it’s even better in the original Italian….

A bit of art – one piece, and then another, and even a third and a fourth – before some selected quotations…

I shall tell of the city of Zenobia, which is wonderful in this fashion: though set on dry terrain it stands on high pilings, and the houses are of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one an- other, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, surmounted by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, and fish poles, and cranes.

No one remembers what need or command or desire drove Zenobia’s founders to give their city this form, and so there is no telling whether it was satisfied by the city as we see it today, which has perhaps grown through successive superimpositions from the first, now undecipherable plan. But what is certain is that if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-Butter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.

This said, it is pointless trying to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. 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.

and another city:

Despina can be reached in two ways: by ship or by camel. The city displays one face to the traveler arriving overland and a different one to him who arrives by sea.

When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the white and red windsocks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to cast off, with the breeze already swelling the sails, not yet unfurled, or a steamboat with its boiler vibrating in the iron keel; and he thinks of all the ports, the foreign merchandise the cranes unload on the docks, the taverns where crews of different Bags break bottles over one another’s heads, the lighted, ground-Boor windows, each with a woman combing her hair.

In the coastline’s haze, the sailor discerns the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing and swaying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea, toward oases of fresh water in the palm trees’ jagged shade, toward palaces of thick, whitewashed walls, tiled courts where girls are dancing barefoot, moving their arms, half-hidden by their veils, and half-revealed.

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.

The land desert, and the water desert.

Or, perhaps in your campaign, the desert of space, and the desert of dust.

And finally, the Emperor himself. For what’s the use of a sprawling empire without a master to conquer it, rule it, and eventually lose it – if not himself, then one of his successors….

Kubali Khan ekes not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening 10 the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. 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.

“Just WAIT until your empire consists of thousands of worlds, trillions of sophonts, and hundreds of thousands of cultures and religions, across hundreds of parsecs… and I haven’t touched on the aliens yet!”

There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell.

“Nowadays, they offer basing rights, tax subsidies and trading concessions. But that’s just quibbling: the basic point remains the same across the centuries of time…”

It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.

Actually, the Mongol Empire’s main legacy was genetic, rather than cultural, linguistic, religious, or technological. Wiping out a good-sized portion of the human race, while insuring that most of the descendants of the survivors will always carry a bit of their conquerors’ bloodline, is definitely one of the most cunning (and ruthless!) Imperial stunts I have ever seen… but few empires valued raw sexual conquest as highly as this one did.

As for the value of a widespread genetic legacy, when that is ALL you left behind… well, it would satisfy Darwin, but not those who aim for something more exalted, more noble, more inspiring than the results of a truly terrifying level of rapes.

And then, you get someone like Alexander, who founded at least 25 cities… most of which, he named after himself.

Well, an empire interested in building cities (…or worlds…) is better than one interested in building only skull pyramids: but the conquered dislike the conqueror, however mild he may be.


About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Invisible Cities

  1. Pingback: The Travels of Marco Polo | Stellar Reaches

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.