Their chess game, their chess board, their interchange and words expressed with such care and diplomatic scrupulousness. What does one stand to gain or lose? The chess game becomes symbolic of their official and repeated rituals. How did each man push power over the other? Or did they not? A purchase of pepper for one is likewise the revelation of a lost city or an un-found city for another. Emperor and visitor know their own limitations, and yet they find a deeper connection, a dependency in each other that the reader wants to believe is true. And perhaps it was. How, and without reading Polo’s actual travel texts, might we believe or imagine the extent of Marco Polo’s influence on the great ruler, just as we might also imagine Khan’s influence over the Venetian traveler? Calvino has managed to push open that door for the reader just a bit more, as if to reveal, through his imaginations and fabulations, what we can say now is true and possible—because both men did meet in person and spend time together, however brief.
In Ch 9, the city of Kambalu, China’s capital city in the novel is perhaps the only mention of a Chinese city, unless I overlooked some detail elsewhere in the book. There is Kin-sai, the “capital of deposed dynasties, the latest pearl set in the Great Khan’s crown” (85). Kambalu though is less a Chinese name to me, and more Mongolian or Tibetan, even Bhutanese. But places such at this on the great Khan’s atlas will remain unspoken by the Venetian traveler, because “[Kublai] realizes that from Marco Polo’s tales it is pointless to expect news of those places” (135). In the same breath, Calvino attempts to put the puzzle of the world together through this circumspect discourse between both men when he mentions other recognizable names and phrases like Malabar and Java and Genoese pirates.Calvino confesses that he's actually describing Venice in every city he imagines for the great Kublai Khan, a Venice that was, is, and could have been—the possibilities, actualities, and impossibilities of this remarkable place. To his credit, the Great Khan wonders why his visitor has kept any talk of Venice from him thus far; he wants to know all about this world city. All markers point to Venice. Calvino gives us the internal and external, but the external does not define a true city in China that the great Khan can articulate. In the end of the novel, there is great talk about the emperor’s atlas, which he examines in front of Marco Polo “to put his knowledge to the test” (136). There are cities never visited or imagined, real places on the map. Connections and associations, I believe, that Calvino makes for the reader. And all Khan can say is, “I think you recognize cities better on the atlas than when you visit them in person” (137). He closes, no, he snaps “the atlas shut.” And Polo gives us a closing summary in the novel to suggest that on the atlas, all cities stand out individually, but that is not the case when one visits them, because these cities behave invisibly, merging into each other into one formless experience for the traveler. If the traveler does not remember the details of each place and its particular experiences, what then is worth remembering? ~Ignatius