Borges and Calvino: Invisible Cities and Dreams

 

…Marco’s answers and objections took their place in a discourse already proceeding on its own, in the Great Khan’s head. That is to say, between the two of them it did not matter whether questions and solutions were uttered aloud or whether each of the two went on pondering in silence. In fact, they were silent, their eyes half-closed, reclining on cushions, swaying in hammocks, smoking long amber pipes.

Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there…

Borges and Calvino. Two of the most fascinating, intelligent and unique authors of the 20th century.Throughout various forums across the internet Calvino is one of the only authors whose name is often referred to in the same light as Jorge Luis Borges, so I’ve finally got around to reading some of his work. I spent the last week reading Invisible Cities and there is no doubt that this book echoes a variety of Borgesian tropes.

The book is essentially a fantastic re-imagining of Marco Polo’s conversations with the great Chinese emperor Kublai Khan. It describes a collection of weird and wonderful imaginary cities visited by Marco Polo on his travels, descriptions which are broken up by a string of airy, meditative conversations between the Venetian merchant and the emperor.

What Calvino does brilliantly in Invisible Cities is to blend the boundaries of fiction and reality; he conjures up the image of a world where life and death meld together, dreams and waking life overlap, and future, past, and present intermingle seamlessly. Each city is like a meditation on some aspect of reality, yet, in a truly Borgesian fashion, almost none of the descriptions go over the length of a page or two. Indeed Calvino himself is the first to recognise the importance of Borges in his writing:

…critics of Borges feel bound to observe that each of his texts doubles or multiplies its own space through the medium of other books belonging to a real or imaginary library, whether they be classical, erudite, or merely invented.
What I particularly wish to stress is how Borges achieves his approaches to the infinite without the least congestion, in the most crystalline, sober, and airy style.

And here what is true for Borges is also true for Calvino. Borges creates an infinite, imaginary, invisible library, a library that is all libraries. Calvino creates an infinite, imaginary, invisible city, a city that is all cities:

I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others … It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists.

In his 1951 essay ‘Coleridge’s Dream’ Borges describes that Kublai Khan built a palace according to a plan that he had seen in a dream and retained in his memory: ‘A Mongolian emperor, in the thirteenth century, dreams a palace and builds it according to his vision’. So seeing the inspiration Calvino takes from his Argentinian predecessor perhaps it’s not surprising that Invisible Cities reads like a Borges story extended to the length of a small novel. Perhaps he came across the dreams of Kublai Khan through Borges, or perhaps Calvino never read Borges’ essay and the book of cities just appeared to him in a dream:

The story of two dreams is a coincidence, a line drawn by chance, like the shapes of lions or horses that are sometimes formed by clouds.

Either way I loved Invisible Cities, I loved it’s magical imagery, and I loved the way Calvino plays games with time and space. It’s one of the few books that I’ve read and immediately been excited to read it again. Maybe I’ll pick it up when I’m lost in unfamiliar quarters of a distant city, and through reading it I will begin to understand the other cities I crossed to arrive there…

Originally posted here.

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