Of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo: Italo Calvino unveils the internal and external, the seen, imagined, and unseen.

As active reading discussions of Calvino's Invisible Cities continue with my graduate IDS students at Northwestern University, our attentions move centrally time and again to the relaxed and hospitable conversations taking place between the great Mongolian emperor of China we know as Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) and Marco Polo, his intrepid visitor from Italy.
Calvino's Invisible Cities, Zenobia art

Invisible Cities, Zenobia art

As one student (AB) pointed out, both characters "anchor the novel," to which I add that there is also that third voice present on every page in the story, and that is the narrator’s voice taking the role of guide and agent in the story; the narrator gives us the scope and participants within this story. While the dialog between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo takes place on one level, the narrator reveals the temperament and poetic shell of each city on another level. But the foundation of the novel itself, the one "real" and trusting aspect of Invisible Cities is the dialog between the Great Khan and Marco Polo.  The emperor wishes always to adhere to the advice of his counsellors and sages, even as he grows tired of them; he watches for predictions and trusts them to assure him that his luck will never run out. He does after all also ask Polo to “predict” where life’s currents are drawing him, them, the future, his kingdom. More than anything, the Great Khan wants to understand the direction of “favoring winds” and his place in the world, as if he anticipates his luck will run out. As if he suffers privately. The emperor does this asking more than once in the novel. Here we observe Calvino’s patience and genius for leaving no stone unturned in his invention of the novel and his writing of it, leaving us with some intractable “facts” about human nature and behavior. My students made reference to suffering and the inferno (any link to Dante’s Inferno, you think?) that takes place at the end, but it’s Marco Polo’s response that conveys our own acceptance and denial of human nature, and our trust in it enough that will leave us unified, removed from each other, or divided as fire and water.

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

A graduate writing course discussion on Italo Calvino and his fabulist novel Invisible Cities

My IDS graduate course in advanced writing at Northwestern U is well underway and we (my students and I) are at the end of our first week. Such fun times! Working out a few kinks though with Canvas and time zone differences for assignment submissions, as I have students attending from other parts of the US. We're reading Calvino and engaging in some healthy discussions about fabulism and prose poetry, the author's format for the work. He recently passed away this year, leaving a good legacy of writing behind that instructs and inspires us, as I know it has for me. May his soul rest in peace and find great and endless pleasure in those fantastical boundaries and cities, which he has penned.
Book Cover

Book Cover "Invisible Cities" by Calvino (Wiki)

Some of my initial thoughts on our discussions for the first 5 chapters of Invisible Cities for this week: I said that we see the interchange taking place between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as a certain kind of inter-dependency between them. By this I mean that the Venetian traveler does not wish to displease or upset the emperor, and at the same time Khan himself leans on Marco Polo in a way as to learn and interpret the nature of his vast empire through Marco's eyes (Isn't the emperor bored by his other advisers?). I align with a student's view of Kublai Khan's vision and how he sets out to "instruct Polo to find his dreams for him" (JB). And hence, Calvino's brilliant and fantastical essence of the novel. JB offered another interesting view: "Polo wanted to open Khan's mind to the possibilities for his city, but to not look at the surface of the structure, but the means in which it is built." I agree with her view here and added that Marco Polo can offer Kublai Khan no empirical consolation except to make the ruler see a good measure of the effects of his own power, which is the one absolute thing, while everything else—the cities and their forms, their inhabitants—are just memories shimmering and moving in our imagination which their symbolism engenders. I did wonder though if Calvino was actually performing a kind of self-examination of his present-day Italy, of Venice. 

Calvino provokes an incredible aura of mystery. JB, my student, said that the author wants us to "complete the journeys and spaces" in his novel. We do, and cannot help doing so as readers, even if the descriptions of his countless cities read as sentimental artifacts of an imagined and invented past, a past that exceeds our own imaginations but now becoming more real to us through the conversations taking place between the emperor and Marco Polo. Calvino's brevity of poetic prose is like a restless Solar Flare, fit to burst out into the boundless spaces of our minds with its creative energy and intensity. JB mentioned in particular her liking for the city of Armilla, which happens to also be a favorite city of mine, among many others in the book. Surely Calvino must have dug deeper into the Romans' pragmatic methods for capturing and controlling water, and their empire has left us an incredible legacy of plumbing and water management, which we depend on and improve today. And yet I want to insist that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BCE) invented plumbing a few thousand years before the creativity and practicality evident in ancient Rome (509 BC).