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Invisible cities by Italo Calvino (book review and recommendation)

Invisible Cities is a novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino. Originally published in  1972, this novel remains popular with modern readers. Before I get to the review, I have a confession to make. I'm actually using a few photographs from another book (written in Italian) because I have listened to an audio version of this book. I could find and repost a photograph of this book, but what would be the point? I prefer to use my own book photography, because it feels more authentic.

book review Italo Calvino

I listened to an audio version of this book twice (which technically puts it into a 'reread' category), for two days in a row, while I was working on a new painting. The painting turned out pretty much perfect, should I thank Calvino for that? I'm not kidding, perhaps the beauty of his prose really helped (or somehow improved) my painting process. It is not such a far fetched idea as it might seem at first. The first time I listened to this book, I was mostly focused on the form that is to say, on the language and the writing style. The second time I listened to it, I was more focused on the content, that is, the meaning behind the words. I listened to it in original (that would be Italian), but I can't remember the name of the narrator.

At times, the form and the content have a way of merging together that can be challenging to describe. This is perhaps especially the case with literature (for obvious reasons). Likewise, this book is hard to classify. Is it a philosophical book? Is it a short novel? Can it truly be considered a novel? Is it a series of short stories or perhaps even better to say a series of prose poems? I'm tempted to use the word magic when trying to describe Invisible Cities, but we all already know that books are magic, don't we? At least, all the good ones are. How else can you explain that feeling of witnessing someone's soul so clearly? How else can you explain feeling your heart and mind opening up and seeing your life prostrated before you? How else can you explain all those life-changing moments than happened during reading?

What is reading really? Perhaps it is something as essentially human as: Hearing a story. What is writing really? Perhaps it is something as essentially human as: Story-telling. In Invisible cities, we have Kublai Khan listening to Marco Polo as he narrates a series of stories about different cities. There is something mathematical (and probably also symbolic) about the number and the organization of these stories, but what struck me the most is (besides the already mentioned beauty of the lyrical narrative) is the philosophical aspect of these stories. Invisible stories is certainly a book that is open to interpretations. Marco Polo might be making everything up. Kublai has no ways of knowing, does he? Kublai Khan might not believe him at all. On the other hand, perhaps Khan wants to believe him (or maybe it doesn't really matter to him either way). The conversations between Polo and Khan were perhaps the most interesting part of the book.

The relationship between the two set aside, this book discusses a great deal more. Why do we travel? How do we travel? Isn't travelling in time, a form of travelling as well? What kind of city do we live in? Can we live in different cities within the same city? In reference to this book, one play immediately comes to my mind and that is Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams. If you read that one, you might remember that famous saying that night and day people live in different cities and may never see or meet each other, meaning that people who have very different lifestyles may live in (experience) very different (versions of their) cities, even if technically speaking, they happen to live in the same city.

It is fascinating to me how at ease I felt while listening to Invisible Cities. There was almost a deja vu sensation to it (and not because I have listened to the same book twice, the feeling was from the start, it only intensified with the second reading). I could imagine the 'cities' Calvino (or Marco Polo if you will) was describing, if not with an absolute precision then with a feeling very akin to intimacy. You know when you know someone so well that it is hard to know where one starts and the other ends, when their feelings become your feelings. That kind of feeling.

I actually read quite a few works by Calvino, I just haven't gotten to reviewing them on goodreads (or my blog). He is certainly among my favourite modern Italian writers. This year I'll be focusing more on classics (and non-fiction), so I'm looking forward to reading more of his works. I might even return to this one (for the third time!), because this is one beautifully written book

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